Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A sense of belonging: Zanele Muholi

Ayanda Moremi & Abakhaphi II. Kwanele Park, Katlehong, 9 November, 2013
By Zanele Muholi
It is not unusual for the subjects of photographs or artworks to attend the opening nights of the exhibitions where their portraits are hanging on the walls. A certain cachet is attached to being selected as subject-matter for an artist, such as achieving some kind of immortality, if only in the realm of art history.
At the opening of Zanele Muholi's exhibition, Of Love & Loss, at the Stevenson Gallery, and the prize-giving at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) earlier that evening, where Muholi was presented with the Prince Claus Fund Award, the venues were packed with people who have stood in front of Muholi's camera, or may do in the future; black lesbians in ties, and young men in high heels.

There was a palatable buzz of excitement that had little to do with vanity. With cheers, yells, singing and dancing, the crowd seemed to revel in occupying the (public) space that Muholi has staked out through her photographic practice that has found a foothold in the art world. The international award, and two galleries boasting Muholi's photographs, affirmed a status that seems to have been denied. It was clear from Muholi's speech that this was only the beginning of a larger revolution - "we must infiltrate the mainstream", she said.

Galleries have provided Muholi with a platform for the black lesbians in her images to "out" themselves and publicly claim their identity which, in the context of seemingly widespread homophobia and attacks on lesbians in townships, can be perceived as an act of defiance. Simply standing in front of Muholi's camera lens is subversive, regardless of what you do in front of it, though, interestingly or perhaps paradoxically, the uniformity of her treatment of her subjects somehow reduces the space she opens up as one to express individuality.

This is particularly the case in a large suite of cropped portraits of women on display in Queer and Trans Art-iculations: Collaborative art for social change (Muholi and Garielle le Roux) at WAM. Uniformity is articulated through the subjects' poses - they engage directly with the viewer as if to announce themselves - and their largely androgynous appearances.

Sameness is important to Muholi's expression; strength and unity not only in a visual sense but a psychic one too, is how her subjects derive a sense of power as it allows them to counter "being different".
This approach, highlighted in the manner in which the images are displayed - closely in groups - all work at articulating a sense of community and a hard line of defiance - "together we stand".

It is not surprising that the art world has provided Muholi with an environment to challenge and locate a community she claims as "hers" through her art; it has always been a gay-friendly if not gay-dominated one. However, does her activism carry any potency in this context?
"I have never seen her work in townships. It is easy doing it here," observes one young woman at the prize giving, "but you can't blame her, she is human."

When Muholi's work grabs headlines, as it did in 2009 when Lulu Xingwana, the then minister of Arts and Culture, dismissed her work as pornographic, she does penetrate the "mainstream", but it might not be on her own terms; she cannot control how her work is packaged and framed, and it conflicts with her desire to "normalise" homosexuality as her images are sensationalised.

Her exhibition at Stevenson seems centred on normalising homosexuality via a series depicting herself and her French lover in bed, documenting gay weddings as well, showing - via photographs of funerals and an installation with a coffin - how this sense of normality is also out of reach as long as homophobia flourishes.
Despite this, once again, this sense of community spirit dominates; as these images show a community in action; whether at a wedding or at a funeral - both events solidify bonds, whether in love or grief.
As with the images of Muholi and her lover in bed, she confronts viewers with the reality of a homosexual existence in such a way that it perhaps demystifies it - it is no longer an abstract or imagined reality, or a news story, it's life. This permits her to claim intimate physical aspects of the homosexual experience that tend only to be confined to niche products  - such as at a gay film festival - in such a way that lessens the perceived shame attached to it, as well as the more public acts that concretise these physical bonds and give it legitimacy. As much as official unions sanction sex in heterosexual relationships, so too does this work in homosexual ones.

Putting lesbian life on display has been a hallmark of her practice. Despite this, Muholi's prominence and her contribution to LGBT rights, the white lesbian community was conspicuously absent from the events at WAM and the Stevenson. The brouhaha around the 2012 Joburg Pride sparked by feminist anti-rape 1 in 9 Campaign lying down in the middle of the Pride route showed this community to be divided along racial lines.
Presumably, there are many white lesbians waiting to come out the closet or are targets of abuse in their own community, yet they do not appear in Muholi's work, except for her French lover. In this way the community she claims has a very particular racial profile. This exclusion is perhaps a reflection of the hard racial lines that divide the LGBT community, however, the act of claiming a space for a community of any kind demands exclusions by its nature. This is the flaw in Muholi's work that remains problematic, however she approaches this subject-matter. Some of the issues that Muholi draws our attention to in Of Love and Loss, such as the rape and violence of lesbians is one that is experienced on a much larger scale by heterosexual women or women whose sexual identity is unknown to us. Such victims or the funerals for them would automatically be excluded from Muholi's purview, despite the fact that these women are raped and murdered because they don't conform to conventional or traditional ideas about women imposed on them. Is this too everyday a subject? Who Muholi photographs doesn't only determine who will turn up on opening night, but exposes who is in, or out.

Of Love and Loss, will show until April 4 at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg 

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