Text by Lerato Dumse
Photos by Sandisiwe Dlamini & Lerato Dumse
Over the last couple of days there have been numerous news reports about snakes being spotted in residential homes and incidents of humans and animals being bitten in South Africa. So when we arrived at the Cradle of Humankind on January 22. 2016, for the conversation between Lyle Ashton Harris and Zanele Muholi at the Nirox Foundation, my first thought was ‘I hope there are no snakes here.’ The place looks beautiful with a green nature ambience created by the many green trees that surrounded the studio that Lyle used during his Artist Residency at Nirox and the conversation venue.
The conversation was made possible through a partnership between Nirox Foundation and the US embassy. In her opening remarks, Elizabeth McKay, US embassy Acting Deputy Chief of Mission thanked everyone for attending the event, “which celebrates the rich traditions of art in South Africa.” Calling Zanele and Lyle talented and proactive, Elizabeth also thanked the artists for bringing their voices and critical work into conversation about art and the intersection of sex, race and gender. Adding that Lyle is the second American artist that the embassy has sponsored to spend time at Nirox.
This is not the first time that Harris and Muholi’s work have crossed paths. Harris came across Muholi’s work around 2007 when a friend who had visited South Africa told him she (Muholi) was someone to look out for. Shortly after they were part of a group show in New York, which received a good review in the New York Times.
In giving context about his history with photography, Lyle explained that he was an economics major, and it was during his junior year that he visited his brother in Amsterdam and started doing photography. His stepfather Pule Leinaeng convinced everyone that, “they need to let the boy do what he needs to do.” He had his first New York show in 1994 at the Jack Tilton Gallery. Harris shared many of his signature shots, some of which he referred to as infamous. One gender-bending image taken in 1994, remains relevant especially with the Black Lives Movement, “Saint Michael Stewart” (named for a young black man who died in police custody, in the photo Harris wears both lavish makeup and a New York City police uniform. He also projected “Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Thomas Allen Harris, Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etcetera. #2 1994, the image initially spoke to the complications of desires of the body.
Harris has managed to successfully cultivate a diverse artistic practice ranging from photographic media, collage, installation and performance. His work explores intersections between the personal and the political, examining the impact of ethnicity, gender and desire on the contemporary social and cultural dynamic.
“We Live in Fear” a documentary collaboration between Muholi and Human Rights Watch was a hit with the local audience when it was screened at the event. The activist then explained that the documentary was produced in 2013 and narrates how she does her visual activism focusing on LGBT community. Muholi explained that she has started working with herself, “trying to remember the person she is.” The project was born from an urge to introspect, as she “becomes a different person, aging as a female bodied being, confronting personal demons that we hardly deal with as human beings especially photographers.”
Muholi shoots her Somnyama Ngonyama series at every space she wakes up during her travels and added that she doesn’t need to paint herself because she is already black. The images are on blackness and representing the self, as she wakes up feeling different, sometimes she doesn’t like herself.
Muholi has had two solo shows and one group exhibition for Somnyama and was well received in New York, Johannesburg and Nuoro Italy.
Muholi told the captivated crowd that in this series she uses her body as her artistic response to on-going racism in different parts of the world, but has not divorced the self from exploring issues of gender, class and sexuality. One of her striking images in Somnyama speaks on being the ‘black sheep’ in your family.
“Many queer people are disrespected in their own families, especially when you are a female and there are expectations for dowry or ilobolo to be paid for you.” The activist said she wanted to create an image “that speaks on being the black sheep in a family where you are expected to provide for one to be respected.”
Apart from the artists presenting their work, a special reading and musical performance was on the programme. It was the first time that Harris’ mother Rudean Leinaeng was reading from her forth-coming book in the African continent, titled Coal, War and Love. It is a fictionalised treatment of a family history based on her grandfather Sergeant Albert Johnson Snr. Albert fought in the Great War, WWI and became one of the famous, ‘Harlem Hell Fighter’ a black area in New York. The story talks about a boy forced to leave school after the forth grade, he travels and makes the world his classroom. He struggles to find his place in early 20th century America as a black man. Albert marries the woman of his dreams and risks his life in the war, with hopes of making a better life for her and their children. He enlists in the 15th coloured regiment of New York and wins many medals. Rudean read from chapter 25, which takes place in 1917.
Mixing various instruments such as a flute, rhythym guitar, whistle and vocals allows Lerato Lichaba and Tubatsi Mpho Moloi to create a rich and unique sound. Their style of clothing is beautiful and embraces African fashion. The creative duo makes use of ordinary objects such as pipes, to create unique sounds. Born in Mzimhlope, Orlando West Soweto, Lerato is a self taught Guitarist who began his journey with the guitar at the age of 16 years. While Tubatsi has been performing with Lerato since 2013, he has toured the world on a musical production called Umoja where he was also acting and dancing.
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