Photographer Zanele Muholi. Picture: ZANELE MUHOLI
She’s worked in as many social projects supporting her cause as she’s held exhibitions and despite some stumbling shows no signs of slowing down. Instead (a sharp and out-spoken lesbian herself), she welcomes all controversy as an access point for dialogue.
“I don’t know what the big hullabaloo is all about,” she says, referring to the frequent storm surrounding her work. “If anything, I wish I could just sit down and have a one-on-one with individuals who are against what I do and make them understand where I’m coming from. I don’t ask for people to tolerate me or my work – they are all entitled to their own opinions and that’s enough for me.”
It’s no secret that in 2009 the then Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, chose to walk out on an exhibition featuring Muholi’s photography, saying it was “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building”. Muholi delves very little into the 2009 incident and rather asks that the minister be respected for her opinion.
Similar sentiments from the broader community are nothing new for Muholi, who begins to share the concept behind some of her most graphic images from her exhibition, Only Half the Picture. The images include photographs of genitalia drawn with her own blood.
“I used my own blood to raise questions around the state of violence against lesbians. Blood can symbolise two conflicting things, such as rape and birth. My question is how can we be violating those very people from whom we are all born? Whether I’m a lesbian or not is irrelevant. At the end of the day, I’m still a woman.”
In the mid 2000s she started working with victims of “corrective” rape and those of other violent acts against members of the lesbian community. In 2002, she and her partner started the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (Few) in various townships around Gauteng, where she worked as a community relations officer.
“When we started the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, we wanted to create a space where lesbians could come together and talk about their sexuality and issues facing them in society. It was around this time that we saw an increase in the violence against lesbians, including curative rape, where people believe that they can cure a person of their sexuality.
“It was also around this time that I was studying PR though Unisa. I didn’t want a big, prominent position in the organisation I wanted to be very close to the people, where I’d have an opportunity to document all the stories we heard about. Which is why I settled for the community relations officer role.”
For Muholi, the decision to make her sexuality and that of countless other South Africans the subject of her art has become the focal point of her career. “When I went to the Market Photo Workshop, I was dealing with a lot of personal issues. I needed healing. There I found people who were able to use their talent to express themselves. I decided to do the same – it was a very therapeutic time and place in my life. I can’t say that I’m completely healed, because dealing with your sexuality is an ongoing process.”
This year Few celebrates its 10th anniversary and, during the past decade, she’s made it a point to grow her artistic abilities. To further support the fight for her community’s rights, she’s diversified into film.
It was after hearing nearly 50 cases of violence and open cases of corrective rape, she hit a wall. “I needed to find a quiet and peaceful place because I felt drained and, although I’d walked into all of this with eyes wide open, I wondered what would stop perpetrators from victimising me for being so outspoken in these matters.”
“For the first few years in the industry, I worked as a reporter and photographer for online publication Behind the Mask. I understand fully the impact any kind of misrepresentation or incongruency from the media could have on society and its understanding of our lives, which is why I’ve chosen to use my own work as a platform to record our struggle.”
Her international masters in still media has afforded her the opportunity to be a part of a number of documentaries, the last of which is SABC-funded Difficult Love.
She was co-director in the award-winning documentary of her own life. Viewers meet some of the people featured in her photos, as well as her family and loved ones, as she shares her experiences as an “out” person.
The documentary has already won four awards – three international and one for best documentary from the 2011 Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. She’s currently working on a new documentary that she hopes will definitely be released before the end of the year.
“When you look up ‘South African black lesbians’ on Google, all you get is blood and violence. We need to change this. I’ve had chances to work in mainstream media and make a proper living out of it, but I won’t. Because that is not where my purpose lies.”
It’s for this reason that she refers to herself as a visual activist. “While others take photographs to make a living, I take them to send out crucial messages and statements about lesbianism.”
Not limited to the arts, Muholi is the founder of her own women’s soccer team, Thokozani Football Club, in Durban. “The last time I checked, the club was not registered with Safa because of the players’ sexual preferences but it is very much still together. We’ve been invited to take part in a soccer tournament in Paris later this year.”
Her other project, Photo Experience, started in 2008 when she collaborated with another initiative, the Triangle Project, which trains young lesbians in photography.
An academic in her own right, Muholi encourages members of both the hetero- and homosexual communities to start the necessary dialogue on sexuality by visiting www.freegender.wordpress.com and making use of the online diary provided by Free Gender, just one of the gender education initiatives with which she’s associated.
Also working on the next installation of her on-going Faces and Phases black and white portraits series, she now hopes to extend it to Africans not just on the continent but lesbians all over the world. She’s been invited to show this work at Documenta 13 in Germany later this year.