Last Thursday, as a part of Claiming Williams Day’s “Community Discussions,” South African visual activist (a term which the artist herself coined) Zanele Muholi discussed the exhibition of selected works from three of her photographic series currently on display at WCMA. Muholi’s audience filled the first of two rooms displaying the artist’s work – black and white portraits of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people from South Africa and other African countries. After a brief introduction, Muholi quickly and graciously opened the event to questions from the audience. According to the inscription on the large chalk wall in the first room, the exhibition is “dedicated to the victims of hate crimes, whose lives were claimed early before they featured here to celebrate the remarkable 20 years of democracy [in South Africa],” some of whose names were listed on the wall.
Muholi began with her “Faces and Phases” collection, which records the faces of acquaintances in her networks of activism since 2006. “It’s not difficult to meet people,” Muholi said, citing friends, friends of friends and even ex-partners as subjects, although she immediately critiqued the academic use of the term “subject.” Muholi believes that “there are no subjects, there are no human subjects, they are people and they participate [in the production of her images].” Among the 22 images in the first room was Muholi’s most recent photograph, taken in Williamstown, of Beyoncé Karungi, a transgender activist visiting the College whom Muholi had met before.
Muholi’s images are presented with names, locations and dates, printed on cards next to each piece. Muholi suggested that viewers read the stories of the people she photographs online, at the queer media platform she founded called Inkanyiso (inkanyiso.org). The artist often travels with the individuals featured in the series and relayed several biographical details of the people in her photos during the conversation. “Sometimes I feel I have not done enough,” Muholi said. “Not everybody will make it to history books.” She then described the unique challenges of photographing individuals. “People are heavy. The energy between people [photographer and subject] is never easy.”
All the portraits in “Faces and Phases” are shot without artificial light and printed in black and white. Muholi cited the timelessness of black and white, and the ease with which viewers can read the palate. She emphasized the “politics of color,” noting the history of misrepresentation of black people through the technical production of color photography. “The minute I think of black and white I have to think of issues of race,” Muholi said.
For privacy and safety reasons, all the individuals Muholi chooses to photograph are open about their sexuality. Muholi insists they each consent to be photographed and be at least 16 years old. She urges the people in the photographs to look good and “confront the camera” in order to “undo the bad portrayal of black people” throughout history. While she encourages tidy appearances, Muholi certainly does not encourage dishonesty, and her photos are marked by realism. She added, “You might not smile because there’s nothing fun about being a black trans person, but you’ve got to look neat.” Nearly all images from the “Faces and Phases” collection featured individuals boldly gazing into the camera, forcing viewers to confront the realities of their lives. The only individual who does not look directly into the camera looks sideways into the distance. Muholi explained that the person was a black lesbian who died at age 25 from AIDS-related complications. Muholi interprets her gaze as an awareness that “she was leaving” this world soon.
Because of the ongoing struggle against entrenched gender normativity in Africa and throughout the world, Muholi’s work has been exhibited throughout Europe and the United States much more frequently than in her native South African and elsewhere in Africa. “Africa has not been easy,” she said. Muholi finds the challenges of the continent daunting, stating, “I cannot deal with homophobic minds … it drains you,” but added, “It’s difficult, but possible with the hope that this will come to an end one day.”
Parallel to the themes of invisibility that her photos address, Muholi expands the issues of accessibility and invisibility to the photos themselves. She speculated about ways to convey her work to visually impaired people. Muholi demonstrated her passion for her work, explaining, “Beyond just the sense of sight … I need to feel what I’m doing … I need to think and act on issues that are bothering me.” Muholi provided her email address and twitter handle to the audience, encouraging further questions at the end of the conversation.
Muholi’s chalk wall concludes, “This visual project is about VISUAL ACTIVISM. It is my take; you probably have yours. PLEASE HELP US END ANY HATE CRIMES: Queerphobia, Transphobia, Racism, Lesbophobia, Homophobia, but most of all any … phobias that might violate human rights.” Muholi’s work, including several stunningly intimate and striking photos in color from collections other than “Faces and Phases,” as well as three documentaries, will remain on display at WCMA through April 27.