by Christie van Zyl
Check In: Downtown Mall, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.
Tags: Sicka Star-ban Jones, Zanele Muholi
Status : It is blazing hot and humid outside, we are housed at the 200 South Street Inn in Charlottesville ,Virginia for the Look3 festival. Zanele’s photographic projects documenting black lesbian lives is featuring in the photographic festival. #facesandphases #zanelemuholi #photography #look3festival #Charlottesville #makinghistoryvisible #youngblacklesbians #sickastarban #yithilaba
Hashtag has become my mantra! All Zanele kept saying was ‘tweeta lapho’, and ‘don’t forget the hashtags’. I have become the hashtag queen of Inkanyiso media.
‘No history under any pillows’ says the pioneer of #makingHistoryVisible – Zanele Muholi.
I am travelling with Sicka Star-ban (Sharon Mthunzi) and Zanele Muholi — my family, my colleagues, my fellow black South African lesbians. We are attending the ‘Look3 festival of the photograph‘ in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. ‘Faces and Phases‘ as well as ‘Love and Loss’ – Zanele Muholi’s highly political visuals of young black lesbian South Africans; is exhibited at the Look3 festival.
It is not just a normal festival, usually we experience a photographer’s work on gallery walls, within limited time frames and in secluded places. Look3 pulled off the most incredible public-spaced conglomerate of exhibitions. We were a fortunate group for as we awoke the morning after arrival, we were met by Scott Thode — the co-curator of the festival. Scott co-curated the show along with Kathy Ryan, his wife. Greeted with warm hugs and an incredible smile, he walked us through Charlottesville’s most prominent spaces of relevance which housed or showed the photographers’ works.
‘Wow twenty-nine hours with an eleven hour layover, was totally worth the travel’ — words uttered by Sicka and I, as we viewed the work of Walter Iooss. Walter is a world renowned sports photographer who has worked with the likes of Micheal Jordan, Abedi Pele and Serena Williams. A glorious exhibition spewed across the walls of an old cathedral, a former church now called ‘The Haven‘ – a shelter that provides refuge and aid to the needy. His exhibition had an air of spiritual air to it, with the natural lighting of the building crackling spotlights from heaven through the glazed glass. Sicka and I met Walter at breakfast the next morning, as we were housed at the same hotel – he expressed a warm gratitude when we told him that his exhibition was worth 29 hours of travel. Sicka even called Walter a god, even though he called Abedi Pele – baby Pele???
Our eagerness and Scott’s too, lead us over to the Freedom of Speech wall near the City Hall where Zanele’s work is exhibited. Along the path of the Downtown Mall of Charlottesville, Piotr Naskrecki’s highly detailed visuals of insects were hung outside from trees. Piotr is an entomologist and a ‘National Geographic‘ photographer. Piotr’s exhibition focused on bringing back to attention to the little creatures that we do not see – I think because if we did see them all the time we would be so freaked out, those things looked ready to swallow us up.
Large A0 sized photographs of Zanele’s ‘Love and Loss‘, as well as ‘Faces and Phases‘ visuals were hung between poles that lined a wall parallel to the Freedom of Speech wall – a space called ‘Freedom Park’. The ‘Love and Loss’ exhibition was particularly interestingly placed as it incorporated visuals from the lesbian wedding of Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi as well documentation of a recent death of Gift Disebo Makau, which the lesbian community of LGBTIQ has been mourning painfully and still will be. The visuals were strategically placed to have a wedding visual next to a funeral visual, love then loss, loss then love. It shocked me and in discussion Sicka and I ended up explaining to Scott that in our knowledge the interpretation of dreams; is such that when one dreams of a funeral, it means a wedding will take place and if one dreams of a wedding it symbolizes that a funeral will take place. A gory realization came that we actually have had to grieve for more lives than celebrate the sanctity of love. Hammered harder in our fight, when news of a preacher coming by and asking why there were lesbian weddings exhibited in the street to which Victoria Hindley – newly appointed director of the LOOK3 festival, responded saying to the preacher ‘I respect your freedom of speech and your right to exercise it, and in the same breath I will fight for Zanele to express her views on her reality’.
Behind the images of ‘Of Love and Loss’, placed back-to-back with the wedding and funeral visuals, sat ever so elegantly the visuals of handsome black, South African lesbians who are participants of the lifetime series ‘Faces and Phases’ of Zanele Muholi. Reflected by a building standing opposite to them, they shone like soldiers of the war of life. This is what we have been documenting our lives for – the consumption of our reality in public spaces so that none can ever deny that we were here. Sicka had an incredibly emotional moment when she saw her portrait on display and after passing by visuals of members of the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, which was originally built for black people 150 years ago – she said ‘it is my dream that my portrait from Faces and Phases is displayed on the walls of my hood Daveyton, 50 years from now. I pray that the Lord will keep Zanele alive to see this through’.
These visuals too also met with a question from a local passer-by ‘Why are there pictures of all these niggers showing outside’ – to which Scott Thode responded that these works have been displayed to spark a conversation on us understanding our differences.
A warm and hospitable visit we had in Charlottesville. Sicka and I were amazed at the immense respect we were given as performing artists. A breath of fresh air to us as back in South Africa, we are required to plan and execute shows even as performing artists. We were welcomed so enthusiastically even though people had not even seen us perform. The moment they heard that we are artists they insisted that we visit their home towns to put on a show. It showed me an incredible sense of respect and support for the fact that my work thrives through people. We were questioned through our specifications for lighting and sound- something that we would probably have had to plan and provide for ourselves back home, out of our own pocket for the success of our show. A performing artist’s show can depend solely on the attitude that the sound and lighting crew would have. From being asked ever so graciously and open heartedly if we needed water or food all the time – I could swear that none of those volunteers were actually artists. Something we could learn from back home, the privilege of being a volunteer. I had the opportunity of asking one of the volunteers what the LOOK3 festival offered them to be volunteers and he calmly and in a very appreciative tone responded ‘Well they offer me an opportunity to speak to the photographers that are showing their work, as well as to learn more about the structure and how to run things’. Not a word about even one dollar – and he travelled two hours from Kentucky and was crashing at a friend’s place to participate in the LOOK3 Festival of the photograph expecting nothing but experience. That is dedication, he volunteered to something he knew will contribute to his career in the long run, something that will create good networks for him when he is done with his studies and pursues photojournalism professionally.
The best and most inspiring part of the Charlottesville was realizing the incredible networks of support that people give each other in America. We were mingling with the cream of the crop and being treated with respect as though they knew of our work and had to give credit where it was due. Scott Thode, Kathy Ryan, David Alan Harvey, Walter Iooss, Robin Schwarts, Chris Booth, Christian DeBaun; were all incredibly friendly, easily accessible and friendly beings. It was a humbling experience, as people of their caliber would not avail themselves to be easily accessible to the youth here in South Africa – it is a struggle and Zanele is one of the few people I know whose status does segregate her from us the meager ones. I could say of course that is accredited to our association with Zanele, but I would be lying. We may have been there through Zanele appreciating us but these peoples’ interactions with us showed me how much they appreciate the individual for their tenacity to just exist. Scott kept reminding me of how things should not be difficult. I still do not know how to digest that – see we have been raised to understand that difficulty is growth, to the point that when it is no longer difficult it feels as though one is not actively working towards their own growth.
What if the whole world lived on the same bread and butter as the people we met in Charlottesville – always ready to help, serve and support with an astute respect for time and being?
I appreciated not being taken for granted and not being expected to justify how I celebrate my existence according to the measure of others. Charlottesville is the best!
Oh and FYI, Charlottesville is six hours away from New York, it is not Virginia!
#look3festival #photography #makinghistoryvisible #blacklesbianlives #facesandphases #charlottesville #southafrica #collaborations #zanelemuholi #scottThode #kathyryan #christievanzyl #sickastarban #paramounttheatre
Christie van Zyl logging out…