|Ayanda Moremi & Abakhaphi II. Kwanele Park, Katlehong, 9 November, 2013|
By Zanele Muholi
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."