Zanele Muholi: Speaking back to hate

“I’ve never produced a picture for fun,” says Zanele Muholi. “I’ve only ever produced photographs to speak on or against something. I need to conscientize people.”
Bona II, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2015
Bona II, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2015 by Zanele Muholi. From the exhibition SOMNYAMA NGONYAMA.

Muholi describes her work as “art activism” – “an artistic approach to hate crimes” against LGBT people. We are sitting in an enclosed space in Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. There are blankets, cushions, flowers; it is an installation of hers entitled the Mourning Room, recreating a space in which families and friends commemorate the deceased.

Growing up in the Durban township of Umlazi where she was born in 1972, “I was just myself,” she says. “I’ve never been in the closet. I hung out with a lot of my gay friends; we were out and queer.” There was sometimes name calling, but nothing of the viciousness that characterises the homophobic hate crimes she has been documenting since 2004. These range from torture and curative rapes (aimed at “curing” the victim of her homosexuality), to the stabbing, stoning, strangling, and beating to death of lesbians.

“I can’t say what is this anger come from exactly,” says Muholi. She hopes one day there will be a “hate crime TRC” where men will explain why they performed such violent attacks. “Right now we are just talking of a hearsay, and we’re saying it’s patriarchy; we’re saying it’s how apartheid emasculated men – which is not quite precise.” But although she shies away from diagnosing hate crimes’ causes, she believes that “hate speeches from those who are in power” can have devastating consequences. “You find that the perpetrator [of a hate crime] projects this angst based on the wrong information that he heard” from traditional leaders, for example, about gays and lesbians. “People are poor, people are hungry. Why use homosexuals as a scapegoat for your own fuck-ups? With every word that is said, another woman’s child gets killed because of such hate speech.”

At 19, Muholi moved to Johannesburg where she would go on to study advanced photography at the Market Photo Workshop. She is attracted to photography as a medium “because of its universality; it’s easy for people to read the image regardless of the language they speak. I don’t think that images have any racial barricades: a photo is a photo.”

Muholi’s earlier work focused on “the body, the form and aesthetics of the black female” – images of striking tenderness, often conveying women in positions of physical intimacy. This has shifted as she began her Faces and Phases series in 2006, capturing “the face, which is more confrontational; they’re not scared to be in the forefront.”  The eyes of the series’ black lesbian and transsexual participants (each of whom had to sign a consent form) stare straight at the viewer, unvanquished and uncompromising. “It’s never my intention to ‘out’ people, so it’s easier when people are already out,” she says.

The portraits were shot in black and white, to evoke a “classic, timeless feel”. She was keenly aware of the dearth of visual documentation of black lesbians over the past 50 years, and felt she “needed to create something that existed way before” in order to acknowledge, “that we were there before. We have been”.

“I work everywhere but most of the individuals of the series are from the township because that’s where I’m connected; that’s the space in which I come.” She wants viewers to “have an understanding that we exist and there are so many struggles that we are still resisting as people. We obviously need to speak to people who refuse to embrace the existence of other sexualities, and also to undo the whole notion of us and the other – because we live in the same communities.”

The series, which is currently showing at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, contains just over 200 portraits; she aims to reach 500 by the time she wraps up the project in two years’ time.

Muholi’s creative expression extends beyond photography, however. “I’m trying to shift the focus on just being one thing. I do other things as well – I do performances from time to time. It also depends on my mood,” she says. She has produced documentaries, including the award-winning Difficult Love; she paints and sews; she used her menstrual blood to write text on canvas commemorating murdered lesbians. She has also recreated newspaper posters with headlines about lesbian hate crimes using beads which symbolise fragmentation – “where you try to put together or pick up the pieces after you’ve lost someone which will never be the same”.

In April, Muholi’s flat in a suburb on the slopes of Devil’s Peak above Cape Town’s city centre, was burgled. The thieves ignored appliances like her television and projector, instead stealing hidden away hard drives that contained photo and video testimony of lesbian hate crimes.

“It’s still the most painful experience I have had in my life. I haven’t come to terms with it. Each time I go home, I’m not feeling like I’m at home because the space has become a crime scene.” She believes the burglary was a deliberate attempt to “disorganise” her. But she remains undeterred. “In my headspace I’m still inside South Africa, the very same South Africa that has its own awkward history. That history shapes you to become the person you are.”

Her subject matter means she lives “with constant pain. Sometimes I go to the gym to forget.” Exertion lightens her load, at least momentarily, so she can carry on her struggle. “I do have hope that this will be over one day,” she says. In the meantime, “I’m just one of those who are trying to make sense out of fear, of course. At some stage I wasn’t afraid, but now I’m really afraid.”

From 2007 to 2009, Muholi was based in Toronto, where she completed a Master’s in Fine Art at Ryerson University. She had the opportunity to continue living there, but she found she missing South Africa too much. I won’t leave this place. You can run away maybe, but you can’t run away from yourself. My life is here. I love South Africa. There is no other place for me except this place I call home.”

This article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Wanted.

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