South African Visual Activism opens eyes in Liverpool

by Lerato Dumse

It was exciting to witness the opening of Zanele Muholi’s Vukani exhibition, at Open Eye Gallery, in Liverpool UK. Three gallery rooms are currently occupied by Muholi’s photographs and documentaries on a show which opened on September 17, 2015.
This is her third major solo show this year, one titled Art of Activism opened early this year at Akershus Kunstsenter, Norway followed by Isibonelo/ Evidence at Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Vukani is a Zulu word which means Rise, it is a message from Muholi, directed to members of her LGBT community. Those who were fortunate or privileged to make it to the opening night were treated to four of Muholi’s photography projects and various video installations.
Gallery one, welcomes visitors with 185 black and white portraits from the  popular Faces and Phases series. As she has done in the past, some gaps were left open in the installation, as a tribute to black lesbians who will never make it to the project because they were killed in homophobic attacks.


2015 Sept. 17 Viewers @ Gallery 2 _ OEG_0676

Gallery two is shared by ZaVa, Brave Beauties, Mo(u)rning featuring life size photo of Nathi Dlamini at the After Tears of Muntu Masombuka’s funeral. ZaVa, one of the two framed projects provides an invitation into the personal space shared by Muholi and her partner Valerie Thomas. Their self-captured photos are part of an ongoing series which is shot when the couple meets in different places such as Paris, Venice, Arles, Bordeaux and Amsterdam.


2015 Sept. 17 Viewer passing Odidiva_0669


The Brave Beauties allowed the South African photographer to continue merging her art and activism. In this series, feminine gay men and transwomen are documented mostly in bikinis and other swim or summer clothing. Each striking their own pose, they claim their femininity and affirm their existence and love for looking beautiful. Then in stark contrast in the opposite wall hangs framed colour photos of the participants joined by others.
This tribute series was captured during a re-enacted mourning series. A rich red colour dominates in these photos, including the red candles that they are carrying. Odidi Mfenyana whose portrait was shot after returning from the funeral of Disebo Makau, a black lesbian who was brutally murdered in her community of Ventersdorp in North West, South Africa. Odidi is carrying Disebo’s funeral programme and a red candle on each hand.

Nathi Dlamini’s portrait is impossible to miss, the same way his presence commands attention whenever he gets on stage or when he walks on high hills in his community of Kingsway, Ekurhuleni in Johannesburg. The photo was taken after the funeral of HIV and LGBTI activist Muntu Masombuka who succumbed to illness in 2013, hence the title After Tears. The portrait with a red wall in the background and Nathi’s unforgettably confident pose, covers the wall from top to bottom.

Moving upstairs leads to gallery three, a room full of Muholi’s documentary screenings. Enraged by a Picture, which was produced more than a decade ago, made its comeback in Liverpool. It was also the documentary of choice when Muholi presented her artist talk at the gallery two days prior to the exhibition opening. Award winning Difficult Love is also amongst the selected videos, alongside Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi’s lesbian wedding and “We Live In Fear” a collaboration with Human Rights Watch.


2015 Sept. 17 Viewers at Gallery 3_0641

As usual, Muholi had participants present during the exhibition. Somizy Sincwala represented the Brave Beauties, and the community of Daveyton as the winner of Miss Gay Daveyton 2015.
Lerato Dumse represented Faces and Phases participants and documented Muholi’s week in Liverpool.

The crowd moved around the gallery and familiarised themselves with Vukani exhibition before the speeches started. Sarah Fisher, Executive Director of Open Eye Gallery was the MC for the night and introduced the speakers.

Wendy Simon is responsible for culture in Liverpool City Council and is described as massively supportive of the arts. She said human rights and diversity are important to them as a city. Wendy explained that Liverpool has been hit by many hate crimes, but added that the police and their partners have been working hard to raise awareness about this issue.
“Those tragic deaths have rallied people to come and find solutions to these problems.” Referring to Muholi’s work she said, “the arts can be used in many different ways to tell people’s stories.”

Inspector John Sacker works with the community engagement unit at police head quarters programmes in Merseyside Police. Insp. Sacker shared that he works with a fantastic team, and said that “they treat everyone equally” and attempt to address hate crimes and issues around it. “It is necessary to take robust action against perpetrators of hate crimes and recognise the needs of support for victims,” he continued.

Wearing his full uniform for the event, he told the crowd that he has looked around the photography before the opening, and even went deeper and looked at why the photographer does the work. Insp. Sacker said he read the text written by participants, sharing their life stories. Before closing his speech, he then shared his time by inviting his colleague Inspector Karen Dowden, to speak in her capacity as the chairperson of the black police officers association (BPA) on Merseyside.


2015 Sept. 17 3 Officials & Muholi_0610


She elaborated how they promote inclusion among many other things, but added that their aim is for the BPA to cease. Insp. Dowden concluded by saying this will happen when they have achieved equality, equity, and fairness; eradicate discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. She admitted that it might be a huge ambition, but she believes that by working together with communities and partners then it will be achieved.

With all the speeches and formalities out of the way, people were then allowed to continue enjoying the exhibition. Just before people left to go home Somizy gave a beautiful unplugged performance of Miriam Makeba’s Qongqothwane, which Makeba often explained that it was called The Click Song because colonizers of South Africa fail to pronounce the Xhosa word.

Vukani Exhibition: 18 September- 29 November 2015



Related link


2015 October 2:  Liverpool was a great experience.




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2 Responses to South African Visual Activism opens eyes in Liverpool

  1. Tholwethu says:

    Beautiful coverage of the event. It would have been great to see the portraits you are describing above as part of this article. Nonetheless, good work on managing to paint a vivid picture of what happened at the exhibition, it sound’s like it was an interesting and eye opening event.

  2. Pingback: 2015 Oct. 14: Brief visit to Amherst |

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