by Lerato Dumse
Eyes were cast in Cape Town (CPT) with the hype created by the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and the #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Faces and Phases 2006-14 (F&P) commanded its own attention with the two-part book launch and reunion hosted by Khayelitsha based lesbian organisation, Free Gender, as well as the African Gender Institute at the Harry Oppenheimer Institute building at UCT.
Free Gender home hosted the closing event on Saturday, March 28 with a braai, which was attended by the book’s participants, their friends and allies from Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Nyanga. While the more formal of the two events was held on Tuesday March 24, attended mainly by black lesbians from various places like Embekweni in Paarl, Khayamandi in Stellenbosch, Nyanga, Langa, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha. They were UCT students from different faculties who were in attendance, academics and fellow visual artists, and people who follow the work of the visual activist, Zanele Muholi.
This is Muholi’s forth publication since 2006.
Other publications includes:
- Zanele Muholi: African Women Photographers #1(2011)
- Faces and Phases(2010)
- Only half the picture(2006)
It is the first time that a Faces and Phases 2006-14 book launch is divided into two events, since Muholi started hosting launches in different South African provinces and internationally. The two events were in contrast with one another, considering the venues and language used with only the participants, and excitement from attendees remaining constant.
UCT divided the conversation into two conversations, “Politics of seeing, looking and being looked at, together with reflections on changes overtime.”
In Khayelitsha people mingled before a 11 minute documentary (featuring F&P participants) titled “We live in fear” (2013) was on a bioscope format screened before the floor was opened to questions and comments.
Describing herself as Muholi’s long time friend, facilitator of the UCT event and senior researcher at HUMA – which is the UCT’s humanities department Dr Zethu Matebeni, said Muholi is invited as a prestigious person.
Matebeni also shared memories of a period when, “many black lesbians were scared of being photographed, due to fear of being part of something that is permanent or they were not out of the closet.”
“Thank you for coming out today,” is how Muholi greeted guests at UCT before mentioning that her life began in different spaces, “where I questioned our existence and was bothered by the invisibility of black lesbians.” Muholi who last exhibited at UCT more than a decade ago said, “We have to enter University spaces and not seeing what looks like us on the walls means we must change those walls.” The artivist told the crowd that without people’s participation the book would not have happened, and is indebted to them.
The Oppenheimer hall erupted with people singing a song remixed about Free Gender, when Funeka “Tafura” Soldaat who is the leader of the organisation, stood up to speak during the UCT launch. Tafura opened by talking about the panic they went through when the four men who were arrested for killing Zoliswa Nkonyana escaped from jail.
“We knew that we would be their first targets,” shared the long time activist. Tafura also explained that in 2008 when Free Gender was born they never thought of taking pictures; “because the main thing was to make sure they we are comfortable in our township as black lesbians.
It was not until 2010 while attending Millicent Gaika’s court case that Muholi advised them they need to start a blog, so they can document their organisation. “Since no one knew about blogs in our organisation, Muholi trained some members on Basic Photographic skills and also to operate our Freegender blog and now everyone knows about FreeGender,” Tafura added.
Speaking during both events, Tafura reiterated that she doesn’t want the existence of black lesbians to be wiped out. “If our history had been told before, we would not have faced the homophobia that we are facing today.”
Tafura believes that taking photos is crucial for history; “we are fighting with pastors who say homosexuality is a new thing because there was no one in 1912 who photographed homosexuals.”
The youngest panelist Yonela “Small” Nyumbeka who was present at both events said she is a strong lesbian because she associated with old lesbians such as Muholi and Tafura who groomed her to stand her ground. Looking at her portrait Yonela sees herself as cute and grown up since the photo was taken. She said her reason for participating in the series is for people to see there was an activist called Small.
Another participant, Lesego Tlhwale stood up during the UCT launch, “to express appreciation for what Zanele has done, and to thank “ubaba” as we affectionately call Muholi.”
Lesego also added that she wanted to respond to a question asked about black lesbians and if they are only identified as ‘black lesbians from the township’.
“It made me think and reminded me of the work that Zanele does, which is similar to take a girl child to work.”
Tlhwale added that Muholi instilled in her that she is beyond being a young black lesbian from the township. She believes that Muholi recognises that she has been privileged to be able to shoot and passes that opportunity to others. “She gives young black lesbians cameras to be able to document their own lives,” continued Lesego.
“I had the opportunity to work with Muholi and to travel abroad with her, an opportunity I would never have, being Lesego ‘a black lesbian from the township’. Tlhwale testified that Muholi gave her the time and platform to speak about herself, be in front and behind the camera and not only be mentioned in journals and academic papers by other people.
Selaelo Mannya shared her reflections about the UCT launch by saying that she is happy to exist in a time and space where members of the LBGTI community can gather to celebrate the first record of Lesbian lives in a form of a visual book.
“I got the opportunity to be part of the series because I was invited to a funeral of a hate crime victim (Noxolo Nogwaza) when I was living in a Johannesburg suburb.”
Mannya says the conditions that Noxolo lived in, shocked her to the core.
“When Zanele told me about the Faces and Phases series I agreed because it was my moral obligation,” added Mannya. She reminisced about coming out in high school, when she goggled “girls who like girls” and Muholi’s name came up and that became her point of reference.
“Participating in this series means I can also be someone else’s point of reference,” she adds.
Another participant who shared her experience is Thembela Dick, who said her role at the book launches was to document and organise transport for Gugulethu and Nyanga Faces and Phases participants to attend. My take on the events is that it was successful; some participants did not make it because of reasons such as work and long distance.
The event was great because I saw and felt that all the participants were very happy to see themselves in the book. While documenting the event, listening to what the panellists and audience questions, it made me realise that the work we did with Muholi while capturing portraits in Cape Town was history in making.
Related links to Faces and Phases (2006-2014)