By Tod Roulette
On May 8th, 1996 South Africa became the first country in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Photographer Zanele Muholi began to collect a series of images based on South African lesbians one year after the South African government legally recognized same sex marriage. It is against these political and historical firsts of granting rights that make the facts presented in Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence the photography exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum until November 1, 2015 depressingly hard to accept.
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence is a minimally arranged photography show featuring South African black lesbians. Muhol, a black South African artist who is also a lesbian and long time activist for LGBT rights, displayed an array of impactful and non staged subjects. The exhibit presents eight-seven works created between 2007 and 2014.
Being Scene, a silent black and white video located at the entrance to the exhibit, features the black South African participants in Muholi’s ongoing project. The video assists in giving representation and presence to black South African lesbians.On the opposite side of the freestanding video wall is a large chalkboard with several handwritten testimonies of pain and trial describing poverty, sub par education, sexual threats and assaults and even murder.
Some of the testimonies written on the black and white board read: “I was raped by my cousin. I couldn’t talk about it. Later, that cousin came and told me that he was HIV Positive, and that he raped me on purpose.” “She was only 19 years when they stoned her to death in her township in Khayelitsha. Her name was Zoliswa Nkonyane.” “The low point came when I was raped and my church believed that God was punishing me because I was not willing to change.”
The images give us a glimpse of the myriad of stories, visages, characters, expressions and lived experiences of black women. A present them in a very different context than their African-American sisters and LGBT kin as well. Muholi captures their collective fortitude to keep being and exploring while showing the world who they are.
The most impressive aspect of Muholi’s work is that it has not tried to construct the world of an activist. There is very little background or props; the focus of the lens is squarely on its subject. The participants in her ongoing series are front and center and there is no elaborate setting to convince you who these women are.
In the photograph entitled Vuyelwa ‘Vuvu’ Makubetse, Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2013 the sides of her head are shaved clean and hip-hop zigzags on her Grace Jones natural fade are fiercely unapologetic. She has a formidable South African look with golden skinned, small oval face, high cheekbones, large deep-set eyes and sharp nostrils and bridge. Dressed in a black and white suit (that is slightly too large), a vintage ’40’s button down black and white shirt with a checkered pocket square she could easily pass as Johannesburg’s own Janelle Monae (the androgynous U.S. R&B ‘psychedelic-soul’ singer who mostly wears men’s suits and clothing).
A striking dark-skinned woman photographed in front of a traditional African fabric that looks like Op Art, projecting her as if she is in 3-d. She is posed a three-quarter turn, coquettish with large dark eyes, long twisted hair behind one shoulder and draped over. She is deeply alluring and she is identified as Lesedi Modise, Mafikeng, North West, 2010. We can only imagine what her life must be like as a beauty that doesn’t desire men?
Almost all of the prominent African photographers in contemporary art history are men. And before the 1996 exhibition, In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, curated by Okwui Enwezor and Octvio Zaya opened in New York, nearly all Westerners had never seen photographs of African subjects taken by African photographers, and intended for African audiences. Muholi’s work is important because it establishes another watershed art history precedent: African photographers examining same gender loving people in their community. Her ongoing body of work, like the 1996 exhibit of In/Sight forces white Western LGBT community, celebrates African subjects as interpreted by their own for their own.
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence is organized by Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Family Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, with Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.