by Fikile Mazambani
At the behest of Maurita N Poole, a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow for Diversity in the Arts, Zanele Muholi brought her series; Faces and Phases, Beulahs and Being to the Williams College Art Museum (WCAM) in Williamstown, Massachusetts and her work was so well received, it piqued the attention of the College President, Adam Falk, who attended one of her exhibitions.
Described as powerful, gorgeous, beautiful, rich and sensuous; the installation drew audiences in like moths to a flame, as her work came alive and met expectations of the college’s students, who are the ones who had lobbied Poole to extend an invitation to the 2013 Prince Claus Laureate.
The three installations were vibrant in the gallery as they spoke loudly as to why Muholi chooses to document lesbian lives through portraits. She says of all her works “I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers. I show our aesthetics through portraiture…of both our existence and our resistance as lesbians/women loving women, as black women living our intersecting identities in a country that claims equality for all within the LGBTI community, and beyond”.
Poole said Muholi’s work “in a very provocative way links everything to make one feel important and have a sense of being, that of belonging”, speaking to the fact that although these portraits were of South African lesbians who were sharing their triumphs and challenges, the work was relevant for young people at the College as well, especially the 18-21 demographic, who were still exploring, questioning and figuring themselves out.
Students from surrounding Smith College and the Massachusetts University of Liberal Arts (MCLA) also got to experience artist talks in their turf as well as being able to take in the exhibition. They came from Gender and Sexuality Studies, Africana as well as Art Studies. An opportunity presented itself as well, for one of the college’s undergraduates, with interest in Human Rights issues in South Africa, to collaborate with Muholi and delivering a public program in the gallery.
Professor of History, Gretchen Long, currently teaching a course “Black women in the US” found the exhibition to be very informative, especially for her students who had “read bits of news articles on LGBTIs in Sub-Saharan Africa but never really having been able to put a face to the story.” The course explores issues of sexuality and violence and the exhibition married theory to reality for many students and faculty as well.
Lesbians in the townships continue to endure beatings, contraction of STDs, murders and rapes. Some of the women on the portraits have endured ‘curative’ rapes – a belief that a male can ‘cure’ a lesbian of their sexual orientation by raping them. “Her work is important because it gives a face to a problem that people in the US can hardly believe. It almost sounds absurd except that it is not!”, said David Eppel, Professor of Theatre, speaking to a scourge that almost sounds made up to the outside world.
Himself a South African, Professor Eppel who has taught at Williams College for close to thirty years, has some knowledge about going against the grain.
A founding member of Johannesburg’s famed nonracial The Market Theatre; he stood up against apartheid through art, at a time when it could cost one their life or limb.
“Her work was refreshingly honest in this day of political correctness. Zanele is a strong woman who will never be a victim. This is the South Africa I have longed for, for a long long time.”
Muholi who has met varying degrees of resistance since she started documenting her work has not slowed down and continues to bring to light the inconsistences legislature and what happens on the ground. A pertinent example was having a Minister of Arts and Culture storm out of exhibition because “her work was immoral, offensive, and against nation building”. That line of thinking being problematic for one in public office because it is seen to encourage and incite violence and then feign concern when lesbians are attacked for being ‘immoral’.
Eppel congratulated what he saw as “a resolute spirit in the face of such difficult circumstances.” He also agreed to same for peers in the portraits, whom she refuses to deem subjects.
He wanted his students understand the importance and impact of activism by encouraging them to assume the women’s identities and speak as them from a place of strength because “the strengths of these portraits is so moving and so strong, the activism is very clear.” This was part of a contemporary monologue the class had to deliver.
During her visit, Muholi was lauded as an Artist, ethnographer, activist and scholar.
“Her well-articulated and multi layered work offered different interpretations for different people” said Poole. Those interested in portraiture and photography took something away, those interested in identities based issues like gender, sexuality, race or class took something away, as well as those whose focus was on activism around issues like human rights violations were drawn in as well.
“Her articulation of her work – speaking on her artistic process and her methodologies was an exciting experience for me” she reiterated.
Poole, who was curating her first show at the college, said “Zanele’s time at Williams College can be best described as phenomenal.”
Muholi’s exhibition opened on February 1, 2014, and will run until April 24, 2014.
Muholi’s artist statement can be watched here:
About the Author
Fikile Mazambani is an African Human Rights defender based in Toronto.
Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and studied International Studies at York University.
She is a guest editor for Inkanyiso and also married mother of one.