I take photographs to remember those who cannot speak freely and to be remembered.
I believe photography to be my first language, a calling that I received from my ancestors so that I could voice my issues and concerns. Whatever I have captured and still capture is for the world to see that we exist as black lesbians, women, trans men, intersexed, trans women – as queer Africans.
I identify as a visual activist, though many say I am an artist now. I continue to document the many layers of my community, and I aim to create positive images for our future generations. For almost a decade now, I have captured black South African queers ranging in sexualities and genders from black lesbians to effeminate gays, lesbian men, drag queens and trans men. They represent my alternative extended family. Yet I have been feeling a longing in the past two years for something else. I realized some time ago that none of my pictures –at least none known to the world- are of my bio family. I have travelled and related experiences of my adopted family and community in so many places, but I feel an emptiness, a kind of guilt, about the lack of time I have spent on my own bio family, and this haunts me, because it is my family that defines so much of who I am today.
As an insider in the black queer community – being an African lesbian myself, I have shied away from capturing my personal life and my background. I have rarely invested the time to explore the intimacies I shared with my beloved family, including details of my mother’s life and my childhood with my siblings, their children, and the many other relatives who shared space with us. Few people know I come from KwaZulu-Natal, and fewer still know I was born and raised in Umlazi township, Durban. Today I am ready to share more because I am in mourning.
There is a photo project I never had a chance to complete, because my beloved mother Bester Ziqubu Muholi passed away from us on 27 September 2009. The project is called Massa & Mina(h), and it is conceived as a tribute to my mother who worked as a domestic worker for forty-two years. Her last stable job was with the Harding family. It was only sickness that forced her retirement in 2002. The last time I saw Mrs Harding was more than decade ago, though she was part of my mother’s life long after she stopped working for the Harding family. It was always curious to me that two women would share parts of their personal lives and struggles despite the years of apartheid that kept one woman in the perpetual role of servant and the other in the life-long role of Madam. I remember in 2006 when my mother was very sick and in severe pain, yet she insisted on calling Mrs Harding while in the hospital. In 2007, Mrs Harding came to see my mother’s house in the township to help her bury Goodman, my brother. I recalled that my mother nursed Mrs Harding’s two sons when they were babies. I remembered so many things as I saw her again at my mother’s funeral.
I was not even in South Africa when the cloud of death enveloped us. I received the sad news while in Amsterdam. I received a call from my ex-intimate partner Liesl. “Please call your sister Ntomb’zane at home – it is about your mother”. When I insisted on knowing “What about my mother?” she told me my mother had passed away at five-thirty that morning.
I tried to calm down, but my mind did not indulge. The last time I had called mama was about two weeks before. I had promised to phone her that Wednesday, but I never did due to my hectic production schedule. I went upstairs to the bedroom I had occupied for more than two months. Tears did not come. Thoughts of procrastination and making empty haunted me. Even when she died I was busy with photography – projects, deadlines and being worried about other personal assignments. I had always wanted to avoid thinking about what might happen to her when I was far away from home. The last time I had seen my mother was in July when I was home for a few days before I departed for Amsterdam.
The night before her, I had an exhibition at the studio at which I was an artist in residence. At the end of the evening, I shared some photos of my mother with six friends. The morning after, when I heard the news about mama, a sharp pain hit my chest. I took a glass of rose instead of a painkiller. I sat down next to the “beamer” that had projected the photos of Mama the night before and continued talking about my mother’s struggle of raising eight children on a domestic worker’s income. What was on screen was the last newspaper clipping titled “Work as usual for Bester Muholi”.
It is an article that was published in one of the community newspapers in the area where she worked. It spoke about her dedication to her work in order to fend for her children. My father’s name is mentioned, too, though I never met him. He died a few months after my birth. Unlike my other siblings I am the only one who never knew him. He was a foreigner in South Africa. He came from Malawi to seek employment as a tradesman in the 1950’s. I always wanted to know more about him from my mother, but it is too late now. What is left behind for me is a photo of him, a memory for us and our children. All I know is my mother loved him.
Liesl last visited my home in May, and I requested that she take photos of my mother for me. She did. At least we have that record. You know, for me photographs are evidence of existence. They are part of the process of how I am able to understand life. Taking photographs and looking at life in likeness is healing.
I remember one evening in 2006, when I visited home, my mother was not well and her feet were swollen as a result of the diabetes she suffered from. Sabine was my partner at the time and she offered to rub Mama’s feet. Mama brought one foot up to her. Her soft foot, though burning, was embraced by white hands, and I could see from her eyes that she enjoyed that sense of touch. I recall thinking, Gone are the days when white people recoiled from black skin, and they were not allowed to spend time at black people’s home’s. That very night, my white lover and I shared a bed with my beloved mother, who was in pain. The four-room house is sparse in furniture, but we never minded sharing. Sabine is my former lover, and though we have parted, she is still a close friend. You know, it is crazy, but we never bother to think about how sometimes the women we love remain in our mother’s lives forever. My mother never stopped asking about Sabine, or about her mother, whom Mama welcomed into her home in 2005.
Mama saw all my past lovers as part of her family. I write this keenly aware that some of my friends have difficulties with their same sex lovers being accepted in their homes. But I never had such challenges. My ex-lovers are still welcomed at home even though my mother is gone, because she taught my family to accept and respect the intimacy between me and them. She accepted each one, not as a friend or as my sister, but as my lover. I never had to officially “come out” to Mama either. In 1995 I moved in with a woman who was quiet abusive and, when I called my mother for help she simply came to Johannesburg and spoke to us both, just like she would any of her other children who happen to be heterosexual.
At Mama’s funeral I know many relatives I have not seen in years were mistaking my white lover for Mama’s former Madam. But to this day, my sexuality has never been up for too much discussion among my relatives because my mother always responded positively and with respect on my behalf. I remember one day when my aunt asked me when they would meet umkhwenyana -the husband. My mother just said, “Zanele is not interested in men”. I knew from that day that even though my Mama had never had the opportunity for higher learning, she understood love. Love for her children, especially for me, her “special” child. I had supported my mother financially and emotionally as much as I could and therefore she had no expectations of ilobolo – the traditional bride price. I know it is not the same for many of us. My mother treated me like all her other children when it came to love and spouses.
My mother came to us for one last night on Friday 2 October 2009. She slept at home though her movement and voice were silenced by death. According to our Zulu tradition, if a person has died from natural causes, the family may bring the deceased home one last time. Her presence was felt by all of us. Catholic Church women in royal blue uniforms carried her coffin into the house at four-thirty in the afternoon, singing songs in celebration of Mama’s life. This proved that she was indeed a staunch member of the church. We held a vigil that night, and in disbelief I looked at the people, my family and especially the young ones, and I bled. I felt as though I had never said enough to Mama for her to understand how much she meant to me. She was my child, my next of kin.
I have truly lost a woman I loved.
My mother had her children, and then I had her until the last day I spent with her in July. I regret not hearing her last words. I hate the thought of not being called the day she was taken to hospital. I wonder if she thought of me that night when she was passing. Did my Mama ask for me when she got to the hospital? I still want to hear her story. I want to hear how apartheid affected her, impacted on her. I want to hear about her domestic work and the challenges that came with it, both for her family and her relationship with Mrs harding. I want to know how she managed to support us with her meager salary and still pay for our Bantu education. I still need to know so much more about her. You know, for so many I thought that my mother was not a dying type. She survived so many storms, lost so many people in her life – all her family, her mother, three sons, and even grandchildren. My sister Ntombi told me that I must not worry – “Mama suffered from so much pains Zanele, do not worry. Uphumlile manje!”
October 3, 2009, was the day of Mama’s funeral. I had only three hours of sleep and I these in the one other bedroom in the house. I see it clearly now. Two white plastic chairs covered with some upholstery material became my bed for those moments. On the actual bed two female relatives slept head to toe. The space was limited as the room was also full of groceries. Silver pots adorned the top of the imbuia wardrobe. There was cow bile in the corner. Fresh air came in from the window parallel to the bed. In the kitchen and outside women were peeling vegetables. Samp and beans was boiling in the three legged pot.
My nephew Xolani (died on the 10th Feb. 2013 after suffering from HIV complications – he was buried on the 17th February 2013) cooked beef. Everybody was occupied and every room in my mother’s house was full of people on that day. The funeral itself was held at St Alphonse Roman Catholic Church which is situated only a few meters from our home in Umlazi. It is the landmark that we use when we give directions to people who want to come visit home.
I took a bath before the funeral, though I did not bother looking for any fresh clothes to wear. I had no change to spare on clothing for my mother’s funeral. When I heard the news of her passing I had no funeral policy, no big bucks in the bank. I had just finished school abroad and I was still in debt. At the art residence in Amsterdam, I only received a stipend, I had nothing to spare. When I received the news, friends who heard my muted screams gave me some financial support. So, I dressed up in my black cargo pants, black striped shirt and the black jacket I had bought at a second hand shop in Toronto.
It happened to be one of my favorite items. I put on my crazy, not so clean, Nike sneakers and jumped in the car that my lover had hired for that weekend. For sure, those who had heard from my mother that I was overseas expected wonders in terms of dress code. Unfortunately for them, I was so plain. There is no glamour in mourning the passing of my beloved. Some strangers were probably astonished by me wearing pants in church, let alone at a funeral: in my culture, good African women are supposed to wear skirts. But I reminded myself that my Mama would not have minded about what I was wearing. Because of my mother’s funeral, I rediscovered church. Seated in the front row was my family. Usually when functions like this happen family members get special attention and better seats. I decided not to sit with them as I needed to take photos of this journey. My mother’s coffin was placed on the front podium, with just one wreath of flowers, a blanket, and a framed photo of her that I had taken in 2003. She had just turned 67 and I wanted to capture her as she transitioned through different stages of her life. She had on a purple doek, her glasses, and an orange and white two piece skirt and shirt. She looked so healthy then.
The last time we had spoken Mama had complained about painful feet and a swollen stomach.
The doctors had drained water from her stomach and were still conducting further tests to check what caused all the complications. She had known that she had diabetes and heart problems that caused difficulties for the blood to circulate. Then the doctors had discovered that she cancer of the liver.
As the songs were sung, and minimal speeches were delivered in church, I moved around trying to capture the best shots, but all in vain as I could not concentrate. In Zulu we call this uzodlula that means one becomes an extremist during bereavement in the family. I guess thats what happened to me as I continued to document Mama’s passing journey. Luckily Thora Matekane agreed to document the major part of the funeral for me pro bono, and Bongi Louw had a second camera. Inside the church the man who managed the service, our pastor’s deputy requested the men to take off their hats in church. He walked close to Bongi and me and said to me “Men are not allowed to wear hats inside the church”. Then, after looking at Bongi, who is more masculine than me, he said “for you women, it is fine.” I was stunned. I did not know that I was so obvious … my blackness/lesbian identity/sexuality was pronounced.
The beat goes on! – a personal journey to be continued.
So much has happened since this story was written.
2013 will mark 4 years after my mother’s death.
The story was first published in
Reclaiming the L-word
Sapphos daughters out in Africa edited by Alleyn Diesel
About the author
Zanele Muholi studied Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, and held her first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004.
In 2009 she was awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Muholi’s thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Zanele Muholi is the founder of Inkanyiso.
Muholi was also employed as a photographer and reporter for Behind the Mask, an online magazine on LGBTI issues in Africa.
In 2002, co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization dedicated to providing a safe space for women to meet and organize.
She researched and documented the stories of hate crimes against the gay community in order to bring forth the realities of “corrective rape”, assault, and HIV/AIDS, to public attention.
Latest related article on Muholi’s work
Power of the victor