The task of a writer engaging with the work of artists and activists is an important one.
The critic does not only draw attention to the work of particular people but provides a way for readers and viewers to translate and understand the works they view. What is written about the work of visual activist Zanele Muholi, for instance, can help us to think about questions of race, sexuality, violence and intimacy post-apartheid. On the other hand, a writer responding to her images can compound problematic ways of seeing and thinking and can, even if unwittingly, reinforce homophobic views. This is unfortunately the case in art critic Mary Corrigall’s review of Muholi’s latest exhibitions in Johannesburg published in the Sunday Independent on the 2nd of March 2014.
In a tone strangely reminiscent of a conservative right-winger in the United States, Corrigall argues that the art world has provided Muholi with a place for “her” (quotation marks in the original) community because the art world “has always been a gay-friendly if not gay-dominated one”. In this way the review elides the fact that black women artists, let alone black lesbian artists, number few in our context. At the same time it fails to consider the psychic toll and physical risks involved in being South Africa’s most visible queer activist in a context of extreme homophobia and violence. Corrigall also questions whether Muholi’s activism extends beyond the art-world. This betrays her ignorance of the organization Muholi founded, Inkanyiso, as well as what Muholi’s work has meant for queer activists both here and abroad.
The review focuses on “Of Love and Loss”, a series of photographs that record and celebrate queer weddings and that document the funerals of lesbians who have been raped and killed. These two kinds of ceremonies are important social rituals for queer communities and are both private spaces of joy and of grief as well as political spaces that show how far we have come and how far we have to go before there is justice for all in our country. Corrigall also mentions Muholi’s current show with Gabrielle Le Roux at the Wits Art Museum, “Queer and Trans Art-iculations: collaborative art for social change”. Corrigall argues that the uniformity of Muholi’s treatment of those she photographs in her “Faces and Phases” series reduces the space for the expression of individuality. My own reading of Muholi’s work is that something much more complex is at work in this extensive portrait series. “Faces and Phases” mobilises the conventions of memorial portrait photography to open a space for mourning and at the same time queers that space by juxtaposing images of the dead with multiple portraits of living queer subjects.
Corrigall insists that Muholi’s desire is to “normalize” homosexuality. It is important to point out here that homosexuality is not abnormal and therefore does not require normalization. It is should also be noted that while Muholi claims a place for queer subjects within the dominant order this is not to say that her photographs normalize people and practices considered by some as deviant. On the contrary, what her work aims to do is to refuse the bounds of the so-called normal, by not simply expanding but by exploding such limits.
There is a growing body of scholarly writing about Muholi’s work by academics in South Africa like Desiree Lewis, Pumla Gqola, Zethu Matebeni and myself, and by people like Andrew van der Vlies, Brenna Munro and Henriette Gunkel in the UK, the US and Europe.
Corrigall would have done well to have read some of this work or spoken to some of the writers. It also would have helped had she spoken with the artist or read some of Muholi’s insightful reflections on her own work.
As it stands Corrigall’s piece displays an astonishing lack of consciousness about the politics of race and representation as well as of the intersections between compulsory heterosexuality and sexual violence as experienced by women in South Africa, queer-identified or not, and by men who do not perform heterosexist normativity. She critiques Muholi, whose life’s work is to portray black queer experience after the end of apartheid, and black lesbian experience in particular, for not documenting the lives of white lesbian women. She goes on to write, “Similarly, what of all the heterosexual women in this country who are raped and murdered because they don’t conform to conventional or traditional ideas about women imposed on them? Or is this too everyday a subject?
Who Muholi photographs doesn’t only determine who turns up on opening night, but exposes who is in, or out.” Violence visited upon heterosexual women is bound to the violence queer people experience in South Africa. Addressing homophobia is at the same time to address heteronormative patriarchy.
What are the connections between the murder of Anene Booysens who was raped and disemboweled in the Western Cape in 2013 and the murder of Duduzile Zozo who was raped and killed, her body found with a toilet brush inserted into her vagina in Gauteng in 2013?
Was Anene straight or queer?
Was Duduzile a mother?
Why does this matter?
It matters only in as much as certain people are marked for death as a result of their choices about who to love; about what they wear; about how they choose to think and about whether and with whom they choose to have children. Should all acts of rape be understood as hate crimes?
Are white women subject to the same kinds of violence as that experienced by black women in South Africa?
These are important questions that Muholi’s work opens up and that the series of rhetorical questions that Corrigall’s review poses, but makes no attempt to answer, shuts down.
Corrigall’s closing line, in which she writes that Muholi’s choice of participants for her portrait work “exposes who is in, or out” implies that Muholi’s work has aestheticized lesbian rape and has made of homophobic violence a kind of fashionable topic. This is offensive on many levels and makes clear that Corrigall fails to grasp the political force of Muholi’s work and overlooks the artist’s personal position in relation to this subject. Not every review of Muholi’s photographs can or should necessarily serve to amplify the message of her work. However, when you consider that her message is that all people, queer or not, have a right to a place in this world then you have to ask what it means to write against this. When the then Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana walked out of the Innovative Women exhibition in 2009 she left, not, as Corrigall claims, because she thought the works she saw there were pornographic. She left because she claimed the photographs on display were “immoral, offensive” and “went against nation-building”. This kind of statement from those who hold power in our country and who determine who is afforded a place in the nation- state is in fact, what, to quote Corrigall, “exposes who is in, or out”.
14 March 2014
This piece was written in response to Mary Corrigall’s review of Zanele Muholi’s work,
“Sense of Belonging” published in the Sunday Independent, 2 March 2014.
About the author
Kylie Thomas lives in Cape Town where she teaches and writes about the history and representation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; violence during and after apartheid; and about photography and visual activism.
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