by Bridget Ngcobo
What does it mean to be living in post apartheid South Africa?
Does it mean, as the name of the generation alludes that we are (re)born free?
Are our eyes open to the colors and sounds of this new dawn?
What does our mo(u)rning look like?
Knocking on the door of twenty years of democracy we are all gathered today in the name of art and activism. I implore you as you go through this exhibition to not forget why or how you got here.
If we were in Uganda, those of us who are homosexuals would be considered abnormal and in the words of Ugandan president the question would be, “do we kill him/her?
Do we imprison him/her?
Or we do contain him/her?”[i]
Us occupying this space, in this way, baring witness and sharing testament, to violent homophobia might be seen as coercing children towards a homosexual lifestyle. As such, if we were in Nigeria we would be subject to life imprisonment.
Instead we are in South Africa at the dawn of celebrating a constitution that includes every person regardless of sexual orientation, so here we stand in this gallery, in this part of the city knowing that a barrage of policemen cannot knock down the doors and arrest us all but do not be illusioned – we are not all safe and we are not all free.
Today, Duduzile Zozo’s family convened in a courtroom facing the neighbor who murdered and left her half naked body few meters away from her house. Duduzile was 26 years old. She saw the scenes of Mandela’s freedom, our transition to democracy, she heard as the world applauded for the progressive laws of her country including her inalienable right live freely in this country as Black lesbian women.
Yet in June of last year her neighbor decided her sexual orientation meant she should be raped and killed.
Her murderer left her mother asking, “What is it that my daughter did to you, because I don’t understand why an outsider can be affected by her being a lesbian. Was she not good enough to walk in the streets?” [ii]
There is no doubt in my mind that LGBTQ organizations and friends and family united with placards outside the courts for these are now sites of activism. Where South Africans question the state of country and fate of the very generation that we say is born is free.
What you see on these walls of Zanele Muholi’s Mo(u)rning exhibition is an activist holding up a mirror reflecting the lived meaning of ‘freedom’ for Black queer South Africans living on the margins.
She brings to the center the aesthetic of the cracks of this 20-year-old democracy that purports to keep swallowing it’s children whole for loving how they whom they want to love and defying gender conformity.
Do not be mistaken however, this exhibit in as much as it commemorates the senseless loss and violent victimization of Black queer South Africans and trans community celebrates the beauty of Black queer aesthetic and the sheer will to live each day from it’s morning to evenings regardless of threat. Muholi paints a vivid image through every story of every piece of South Africans banging at the door of democracy and shouting we are who are and we will be who we will be.
Through her sharp focus on the lives and stories of the art she produces forces us to question the perimeters of space and who occupies it. She brings to the forefront queer South Africans on the margins, reverberating Black voices on white museum walls. This disruption of our notions of space asserts that the lives of Black lesbians cannot be relegated to violence, courts, placards and academia.
Instead Muholi asserts the complexity and visibility of Black queer lives while simultaneously not obscuring the reality of pain and loss. This exhibit thoroughly disrupts our sense of space merging the politics of geography and the politics of existence.
Muholi lives her activism. She knows the names and narratives of individuals featuring in her photography.
She attended some of the funerals you will consume.
She pressed record on the testimonies of survivors that you will hear. She went to the reconstructed scenes of hate crimes and as a Black lesbian woman captured the scenes where woman just like her were tortured and killed. She has said each prayer on the rosaries that hang on the walls, she has been to the courts and seen how hate crimes are devolving into games being played in the courts of this land. She has prayed for the healing of homophobic priests who believe queer South Africans are the ones in need of prayer.
Zanele Muholi is firmly straddling the cracks that threaten to swallow the children of this country whole calling for you to open their eyes to the mo(u)rning, calling to you to imagine a South Africa where freedom does not only exist in theory but in practice.
Who of you can be here today?
How did we get here?
Are we in danger of being killed when get home because of how we are dressed or because of who we kiss good night?
If this answer is no, then remember that you are here for yourself as much as you are here for those who, for the women in the photographs, for the spaces between them representing those who are no longer with us, for their future of those who will be born free in South Africa and also for yours.
Your liberation who ever you may be is tied to the liberation of the queer South Africans you will see today.
In the words of the words of Arudhathi Roy, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”