Image: Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007.
Revealing Portraits: Reactions and Resistance to Zanele Muholi’s ‘Visual Activism’ in South Africa
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
ICI Curatorial Hub
401 Broadway, Suite 1620
FREE and open to the public
This program is part of the series “We Are Not Sorry for the Inconvenience,” organized by Moses Serubiri.
Informed by the politics of women’s liberation in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda in the last two decades, this series of conversations engages the work of African women artists through a range of analyses, including social, and political frameworks, as well as art critical and art historical methodologies.
Neelika Jayawardane, art critic and scholar, will discuss the earlier works (2005-2006) of artist Zanele Muholi and the activist impulses within this body of photographic work.
South African Zanele Muholi is now a globally recognized photographer and ‘visual activist’. In her latest project, a series of self-portraits, titled Somnyama Ngonyama – meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’ in Muholi’s first language, isiZulu – she theatrically stages stereotyped versions of blackness in which she, and black women in general, have been positioned historically, as well as in the present. These self-portraits are a departure from Faces and Phases, the portrait series she began creating in 2006, for which she came to be known as a talented photographer and a fearless activist. In that ongoing project, she commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black gay, lesbian and transgender people she meets in her journeys throughout her home country, visiting participants again and again to meticulously document their lives. This documentation – revealing the ubiquity and ordinariness of queerness, from urbane centers to the margins of South Africa’s townships – won her respect as a photographer, as well as the ire of conservative politicians in the country.
In the early years of South Africa’s democracy, euphoria of freedom may have convinced many that South Africa’s progressive constitution – which specified protection for LGBTI people – indicated a fully inclusive liberation. Yet, Muholi’s compulsion to create an archive of “visual, oral and textual materials that include black lesbians and the role they have played in our communities” evolved as a reaction to the opposition, exclusion, and erasure that she, and other LGBTI people faced from the nation. Her project aimed to counter invisibility, marginality and systemic silence; she sought, instead, to include LGBTI people to the forefront of South Africa’s liberation narrative. But violent reactions from politicians at her exhibitions, and subsequent theft of her hard-drives containing the records of her photographs highlighted the lengths to which the nation would go to force patriarchal compliance and heteronormativity. The reactions to Muholi and her work, during her early years of exhibiting her work in South Africa, bear witness to the schizophrenic experience of living in a nation which touted freedom for all, but where LGBTI people continued to be targets of brutal repression.
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.