Zanele Muholi: Black, Lesbian and African

Artists sometimes wade into activism unknowingly, while others take it on as a moral imperative.

Artists sometimes wade into activism unknowingly, while others take it on as a moral imperative. Photographer Zanele Muholi is doing just that, boldly going where no artist in South Africa has gone before.

We met Zanele Muholi back in 2006 in Chicago during the Gay Games. Zanele was traveling with the lesbian South African women’s soccer team, The Chosen Few, who had come on scholarship to the Games. Being an out, black woman in South Africa can get you raped or killed (with little or no legal repercussions to the perpetrators), so the bravery of this young group of athletes held clear and special significance.

When we met Zanele she had with her a self-published book consisting of beautifully composed black & white images of nude lesbian couples. Think Robert Mapplethorpe 1980, the height of the AIDs crisis and his photograph’s of the gay S/M culture, and you’ll get an idea of how radical Zanele’s work is in context, as well as appreciate the parallels between the artists.

Just this morning, someone on my facebook forwarded me a link to the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, SA. The gallery will be presenting recent works by Muholi. 

The show opens next week on April 22 and is already causing a controversy.

Last week, the South African Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana “stormed out of the exhibition” of Muholi’s show in Johannesburg before giving a scheduled speech. In response to the media, Xingwana later remarked “[it was time for] a long overdue debate on what is art and where do we draw the line between art and pornography.”

Zanele Muholi’s response to the Minister’s reaction was:

“It makes it look like the government is supportive of homophobia, when in fact they are supposed to be custodians of the Constitution …When parties were electioneering last year, not one of them had any plan to deal with hate crimes. It’s like the issue doesn’t exist. We have made this Constitution on paper, but in reality, what is the point, when it is not safe for a young black lesbian to walk down the street in a township?”

Muholi’s work will be on view through May 29th. Here are some selections from the upcoming exhibition:

Pearl Hlongwane and Katso Makhafola IV…Johannesburg, 2007

Zinzi and Tozama II, Mowbray, Cape Town, 2010

Amo Senokwane and Lebo Mashifane District Six, Cape Town, 2009

Caitlin and I, Boston, USA, 2009