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."

The politics of apolitical fashion

David Tlale's fashionable take on a public protest pic by Simon Deiner
Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton is an odd phenomenon. Not only is it an architectural or spatial peculiarity with all its nods to fallen European empires, but the odd mix between functioning as a shopping mecca and tourist hub, guaranteed by the ugliest tribute to Nelson Mandela in the form of a grotesque oversized statue, somehow captures the worst aspect of our culture or society. It embodies our hubristic reimagining of who we are as a nation, which is somehow realised in a tasteless confluence of misleading visual iconography.

This isn’t a new thought. Yet it buries itself prominently in my mind while waiting for David Tlale’s show to start in the square. Tlale’s shows are always one of the highly anticipated ones at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg. He always has a surprise up his sleeve; whether it is arriving on the ramp on a Harley-Davidson, minting collector gold coins bearing his effigy or bombarding us with a hundred fashion looks paraded on the bodies of opera singers and actors. What would Tlale do next?
I turn my gaze to the blue sky, imagining him parachuting on to the square or arriving by helicopter.
The anticipation of a fashion show is not only part of the ritual but can sometimes be the most entertaining aspect. The fashionistas milling about in their neon and polka dot socks (a must-have) look slightly lost and out of place in this setting; without front row seats to perch on and goody bags to keep us entertained with an assortment of useless swag to pass on to lesser folk as mementoes of the high life, we had no idea where to locate ourselves. We were displaced.
Where was the ramp?

Democratising access to the fashion experience isn’t something you would immediately expect from Tlale, though he has pursued many diffusion-line products from shoes to bags, and affordable ranges for large retailers so that everyone can enjoy a piece of his design genius.
The Saturday shoppers and tourists floating about with cameras and backpacks seem unaware of what kind of experience they are in for and probably do not know of the historical significance of the square in the history of fashion weeks – the first SA Fashion Week took place in a tent on this location in the late Nineties.
Those were different times. There wasn’t a media frenzy around it, designers produced OTT collections (they didn’t have businesses to support), the dressing culture that street style bloggers have cultivated didn’t exist, and people watched the shows with their eyes rather than through the filter of smartphones.
Most of these changes have been positive or have simply shifted the way the fashion show spectacle is consumed. Tlale is perhaps one of the few designers who has an innate talent for understanding and delivering on a fashion spectacle; it may have taken him some time, and many OTT froufrou lace numbers, but he seems to have twigged that it’s not only about the clothes; the drama is linked to the presentation, not just the styling of the garments. For this reason he advances his persona as an indelible part of his brand and shows.

It is not unexpected therefore that his show commences with him leading a group of quasi “protesters” on to the square, with some fashion models in pseudo Herero women’s wear trailing behind him. The pictures that emerge after the show reveal that the procession began inside the mall, past his shop.
Processions are a popular motif in our culture; this stylised one brings to mind those in William Kentridge’s works like Shadow Procession or others where silhouetted figures are collaged on to yellowed texts. Athi-Patra Ruga’s White Women of Azania processions that conclude with him bursting his ballooned outfits also come to mind. This leitmotif in Kentridge’s work collapsed forced migrancy with a culture of protest that bared strong references to black silhouetted figures in Russian constructivist posters. But, of course, this motif has renewed significance in our post-apartheid culture with spates of protest marches taking place regularly in city centres and townships.
No doubt this is what Tlale is responding to; however, the slogans on the signboards – “Fashion on the rise” and “The Mother land” – imply that the designer’s pseudo fashion protest is more in support of an entity such as African fashion (does anyone disfavour it?) rather than against one. Peculiarly, the procession concludes with the designer leading his models towards a row of luxury Mercedes-Benz cars, the sponsor of the show. Juxtaposed with real-life protests that fill our streets, or the tragic Marikana one that remains ever-present, which are linked to poverty and exploitation, Tlale’s display is unwittingly in bad taste, as he parades and celebrates symbols of wealth – luxury cars and upmarket clothing. Presumably, Tlale intended to convey an alternate image of “Africa”, countering the stereotypical ones depicting poverty as flogged by the West, but his performance evinced a lack of political sensitivity. Perhaps he was offering escapism, a kind of parallel fashionable reworking of a staple public spectacle that has become a growing cause of distress, even among the middle classes who fear being unseated by this burgeoning mass of angry poor people.