Skeive dager, Litteraturhuset 22.06.13
by Ellen Mortensen
First of all, I want to thank the organizers of this seminar on “Queer Art and Activism”, FOKUS, SAIH, LLH and – Kunstplass 5, and especially Vibeke Hermanrud, for the invitation to take part in this seminar.
I am excited about the opportunity to dialogue with Zanele Muholi. Hopefully, this encounter between the two of us – a visual activist and an academic activist – may prove productive in our common aim, namely to instill and encourage political change.
I should interject, however, that I am not an expert on visual art. In my research I have been interested in the relationship between aesthetic practices and activism, but my training is in literature, not in art. Like many of my fellow students in the 70’s and 80’s in Norway, we were actively engaged in leftist politics, the women’s liberation movement and in the gay liberation movement at the time. Working class struggles in Europe and at home as well as the Black liberation movement in the U.S. and the anti-apartheit movement in South Africa and the anti-coliónialt struggles around the world were important political causes for the leftists of my generation.
Being an open lesbian in the mid-seventies, I fought for recognition and a place within the women’s liberation movement in Norway. But we were often considered to be a liability and a threat to the women’s movement, which feared charges of being lesbian man-haters. Accepting lesbians in their midst made them vulnerable to such charges, heterosexual women argued. Accordingly, we felt the need to create our own lesbian-feminist organization. And in 1980, I was one of the initiators of Sapfo: Lesbian Front in Bergen.
At the time, I was a graduate student in American literature at the University of Bergen. Literature became for me a source of inspiration in my existential quest as a lesbian as well as a political activist. I therefore decided to write my master’s thesis on contemporary American lesbian-feminist fiction (Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle; Kate Millett’s Flying and Marge Piercy, The Hard Cost of Living). Ever since that time, I have tried to integrate my research interests with my own existential and political engagements, and most of my academic life has therefore been dedicated to the study of woman writers, feminist aesthetics, feminist philosophy and gender theory, all the while being a queer activist, both at the university and in society at large.
Through my studies and research, I have encountered a range of different approaches to the question of art and politics. In Marxist literary theory from the first decades of the 1900s, Georg Lukacs argues that realist fiction best manages to unveil the underlying class struggles that take place in the societies represented, whereas Bertholdt Brecht takes the opposite view: Art is most politically effective when aesthetic Verfremdung is used, that is, when art de-familiarizes our ordinary perception of the world. There exists a similar struggle within feminist aesthetics over which artistic strategy one ought to embrace in order to promote liberation. Should all feminists write realist novels that provide positive role models? Or do artists best serve the feminist by being artistically innovative, thus creating figures that potentially incite freedoms as yet unimagined?
Virginia Woolf argues in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that the plight of women is best expressed through artistic creativity and experimentation, not through political agitation. And according to Aristotle, art is more true and universal than history because it figures not only what is and has been, but also what might be. For Woolf, art has the capacity to create fictive worlds and characters that do not yet exist. Hence, in Orlando, the fictional biography of her (said) former lover, Vita Sackville-West, Woolf breaks with the realist code by portraying a character who lives 400 years and who changes sex and cultures/countries in the course of his/her life, and who enters into intimate and sexual relations with both genders. In 1928 Woolf’s loving and playful portrait of the bi-sexual Vita in Orlando thus manages to create a fantastic, non-realistic figuration that is potentially more revolutionary than the tragic lesbian, trans-gender figure Stephen in Radclyffe Hall’s realist novel The Well of Loneliness, which appeared the same year.
This is but one example of radically different aesthetic practices and strategies, which mobilize differently in terms of political activism. It is possible to argue that both Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall through their respective texts intended to effect political change, at a time when such themes as lesbian and transgender were associated with taboo. Woolf and Hall’s literary works thus opened up – albeit through different aesthetic means–a space to discuss, portray and humanize characters that society had either silenced or made invisible, and which did not, strictly speaking, belong to official reality.
In these texts and in several works of literature to come, the question of lesbian identity and identity-formation was been given much attention. To Hall, a lesbian was a deviant nature from birth–an essence–if you will. But with the emergence of psychoanalytic theory, Marxist theories of social construction (which were already circulating in Woolf’s Bloomsbury group) and feminist theories of socialization (de Beauvoir- “one is not born a woman, one becomes one,” The Second Sex 1949), new attention was paid to the social construction of identity. Art and literature hence sought to unveil the structuring effects of ideology and social and political institutions and the power regimes that they instituted in the formation of the individual. Much attention was also given to the role of socio-economic, political and cultural institutions (family, educational institutions, etc.) as sites of patriarchal ideology production and structures of that legitimized and caused continued oppression of people, based on gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexuality.
With the advent of post-structuralism and deconstruction, new attention was given to the power of language in the construction of the individual, in terms of both body and psyche. Aesthetic discourses underwent “a linguistic turn” in the sense that language was given a foundational importance in shaping our understanding of what reality is, how we differentiate between entities and how we perceive the world. In literary studies, French feminist thinkers and writers such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva & Hélène Cixous pursued an inquiry into the question of sexual difference, claiming that what we understand to be “feminine” and “masculine” is nothing but the reproduction of a Western metaphysicical system, which understands the world in oppositional or binary terms. In this scheme of thought, masculinity is associated with all that is positive, that is, truth, rationality, sameness and solidity, whereas the feminine is associated with all that this masculinity attempts to expel from its self-understanding, namely untruth, irrationality, multiplicity and malleability. The search for the “feminine” as a true difference became for these thinkers and writers a new aesthetic project, one that they also associated with the exploration innovative artistic practices and non-heterosexual practices in art and in life. In this context, Hélène Cixous’ manifest “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1974) calls for a genuine “feminine writing”, one which seeks to undermine an oppressive phallic, capitalist, racist and colonialist logic. Interestingly, she identifies this form of writing with primarily experimental heterosexual male writers, such as James Joyce, and homosexual writers, such as Jean Genet, in addition to a few female writers, such as Clarice Lispector (form Brazil) and Marguerite Duras. A common trait in all these aesthetic practices, is that they subvert the norms of representational language of realist fiction and experiment with new poetic practices that seek to disassemble not only the grammatical sentence of ordinary communication, but Western metaphysical logic per se.
In recent decades, aesthetic discussions have moved away from the questions of fixed and stable gender and sexual identities, questions that were dominant in feminist aesthetics in the 70s and 80s. With the arrival of queer theory in the wake of the publication of Gender Trouble by Judith Butler in 1990, identity has been subjected to radical deconstruction. Butler insists on the importance of discursive and bodily practices in the construction of sex/gender identities, and shifts the attention from the individual over to power regimes and the regulative and normative practices that they impose on subjects. In this respect, Butler makes use of an array of theoretical discourses–and above all Michel Foucault’s discursive theories–in order to explain the nature of the heterosexual matrix, which imposes not only a strict binary gender system, but also compulsory heterosexuality. By exploring performative theory (through linguists such as Austin and Searle), Butler is able to propose an analysis of heterosexist power regime and the regulating and disciplinary effects of everyday practices that subjects are called to perform–verbal and bodily practices–in order to be perceived as intelligible subjects. In all of these practices, if faithfully executed, any gender and sexual performance that deviates from the norm, risks being conceived as unintelligible and thus marginal of insignificant subjects.
In Butler’s political agenda, she calls for subversive bodily and verbal acts, which she values because they manage to create havoc or gender trouble in this hetero-normative representational machinery. That is why she hails the drag artist and the butch women as representational “guerrilla figures,” in as much as they unfaithfully and heretically repeat the normative gender performances and in the process disturb the assumed and naturalized connection between biological sex and gender identities. In so doing, they unveil the array of props, gestures and aesthetic apparatus involved in what we perceive as “normal” gender performance, and thus uncover the artificial, that is, aesthetic practices, at work in normative gender performance.
Most of the aesthetic strategies that I have treated in this brief overview of aesthetic practices and their possible implication for political activism is exactly what I understand to be in question and at stake in Zanele Muholi’s visual art, though performed in a different context and through different artistic means.
To me, Faces and Phases and some of her other exhibitions:
a) – documents the existence of actual lives/faces – archival importance in the task of making visible to the world those lives and faces that are attempted silenced and made invisible – as such it represents an historical, archival activism
b) – by showcasing living members of the LGBTI –population in Africa, she critiques the attempts to affirm Africa as a heterosexual continent (where homosexuality figures as a sign of Western decadence; a white social decease.
c) – by exhibiting loving portraits of intimate encounters between people of the same sex, created from a perspective of empathy and trust, she subverts the gaze of tittilation through which the pornographic industry is made operational and economically successfulà Instead, her art produces dignity in her subjects, which in turn invites solidarity and
d) – artistic virtuosity: black/white or color (trans- Zulu boys in traditional maiden costumes – location: hill with symbolic meaning)à subversive content à composition and execution of pictures: light/shadow-à affective impact—be touched by/moved by the images; identification & compassion – CRITIQUE of rigid sex/gender and sexuality regimes
e) – includes marginalized groups in South Africa: homeless lesbians – evicted from shelters
f) – documents violence against lesbians – “corrective” rapes – shows the devastating effects of violent action – that finds support in public opinion / superstition / prejudice
g) – black-white couples – inversion of traditional power hierarchy—racial implications: domination/submission – domestic workers/servants & master classes (usually white)—effects of subverting these traditional racial hierarchies –of utmost importance today in the age of globalization and
h) Includes audiences from her own community in townships, LGBTI communities and poor quarters – as well as communicating with the elite art institutions and audience – where money and influence is located – opportunities to reach audiences across the world double activism: mobility – global change – interconnected
i) – all al of these respects, I feel related to and intimately connected to her queer art and to her as an activist
I will stop here to give the word to Zanele Muholi, who can speak of her own art in more authentic ways.
Thank you for your attention.
Check the exhibition at Kunstplass 5