Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s talk @ Impact Hub Oakland
by Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene
“I’m a visual activist. I prefer, or want, to think that what I’m doing is activism using visuals as means to articulate my many issues…Activism, activism—to be heard, to be respected, to be recognized, to be counted in history…
This is my work.”
I’ve known Zanele since 2009 and have loved her work since then. Reveled in the wonder every time I encounter her work. I want to find a way to bring you into the room.
As Zanele shared her work with us at Omi Gallery/Impact Hub Oakland—as a Nigerian dyke, I was being seen in ways that I don’t get seen everyday. The poems I be writing, the verses I be rocking on stages—all were before me in her photographs. Even though those stories were not mine, somehow those photographs made room for me to be and breathe.
Zanele had a conversation with us and shared her current work “Of Love and Loss”, a photography series which documents African lesbian weddings, funerals and photos of her and her girlfriend exploring their love and relationship.
She also screened a documentary ‘We Live in Fear’ in which she collaborated with Human Rights Watch, which explores her visual activist work in South Africa.
I strongly suggest you watch it if you haven’t already, it’s brilliant.
I love that she told us the names (first names and surnames) of the people she photographs, who she calls participants, not subjects, whose stories she shared with us with care and respect.
I felt the fullness of these images and stories filling the room. That these people who are so often reduced to one-dimensional subjects in the limited imaginations of non-Africans, and some Africans too, have faces and names and make jokes and wear cute shoes. It was a gift to get to hear their voices and see the expressions on their faces. And in seeing this, the vibrant presence of these stories made it clear what is missing from so much of the conversation of LGBTI Africans—what’s missing are Queer Africans speaking for themselves.
It was not always easy to sit inside my skin as we listened to Zanele share about her work. It was not easy to hear about the brutal rapes and murders of LGBTI people in South Africa.
I wanted to turn off.
Turn my heart off.
And I wanted to just weep.
Being an African dyke, a South African lesbian, a Queer African is not something that can be oversimplified according to western, queer, activist standards or by hatred cloaked in religion—these identities, these lives we live cannot just be reduced to someone else’s judgment or to the pain we survive. We are more than just the pain we survive. Because there is laughter and magic in us. There are crushes and love. There is getting our hair done. There is creating queer family.
There is this beautiful art we make. And keep making. And keep making. Part of what is so astounding about Zanele’s work is that she shows us the pain as well as the beauty, both with such candor, you can’t ignore it.
The fierce tenderness of her gaze behind her lens is palpable. And this was the balm to the pain inside me. Zanele’s love and respect for African Queer lives feels like an embrace I didn’t know I was missing. She is loving us with the fierceness we deserve. I always wonder who takes care of the warrior.
The one who speaks up for us all—how do we support her?
How do we raise our voices in unison with her?
What are we doing on the daily to create the world we crave?
Sometimes I think when people see a strong someone doing activist work, they relax a little bit—thinking, “oh, well thank God someone is saying something.”
I think that is an easy way out.
What can I do in my own way that is creating the world I want for us all?
That is a question I want each of us to ask ourselves daily. We cannot let the burden of liberation work fall on the shoulders of the candid warriors amongst us. We must join in the loving work of art making, of activism, of speaking in the mediums and spaces we can about what we can.
This is what Zanele and her work teach me. And us. We all have work to do. We cannot sit back and let someone else speak for us. Zanele’s work reminds me of my own fuschia-colored dreams. Of my own mango poems. Of my own guava dances and sugarcane verses. I must give these to the world. I must make the work that is stirring in my chest and share it with the world. I must work alongside brilliant beings like Zanele so that all our voices are rising together. This na collective thing we dey do o.
Looking at the breadth, breath, body and massiveness of Zanele’s work, I wonder when she sleeps. I’m not sure she sleeps. I know what it is to be driven by something greater than you. She reminds me that that thing is what matters.
Zanele, thank you for loving us the way you do.
I love you too.
We love you too.
(Zanele Muholi’s Artist Talk took place at Omi Gallery/Impact Hub Oakland, California on March 10, 2014)
SF Jazz Artist talk will be held on 12th March 2014 in San Francisco.
About the author
Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene is an Ijaw and Urhobo Nigerian dyke performance activist, poet, dancer, writer, actress and video artist. She engages a radical vulnerability and candor in her artwork and uses storytelling to build authentic human connection through passionate artistic expression.
Etaghene is a mixed-media visual artist who has produced four solo art exhibitions and has performed internationally. She was interviewed by and was a Contributing Writer to None on Record: Stories of Queer Africa, a digital media project that collects the stories of LGBT Africans from the African Continent and the Diaspora. Etaghene is the founder of Sugarcane, an LGBTQ Of Color writing workshop based in the principles of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. GUAVA, her second one woman show, a multi-media performance about queer African identity debuted in 2013. Her second album of poetry, Nigerian Dyke Realness, drops in 2014.
Etaghene’s first novel, For Sizakele, which addresses Queer African love, identity and inter-partner violence, will be released June 20, 2014. www.myloveisaverb.com, twitter: @myloveisaverb