Art and activism: Interview with Zanele Muholi

2006-02-04 00:00:00

It’s only half the Picture: Visual sexuality, was the title of the exhibit by South African photographer Zanele Muholi launched in Caracas during the 3rd Social Forum for Sexual Diversity. In this photographic series, which has travelled to different cities around the world and reaches Latin America for the first time, we see some perturbing images, as well as images of celebration and intimacy, none of which leaves us indifferent. They open windows to ways black lesbians in South Africa see and feel.

Tell us about the work you do.

Zanele: I work in Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) as a community relations officer. I am involved in community work and in mobilizing lesbians in different townships around Johannesburg. I’m also doing research and working as a photographer.

I founded FEW with a friend in 2002 as a networking, empowerment and support organization of and for black lesbians. Empowerment is education, so we offer training workshops in different skills. We also run “The Rose has Thorns” campaign against hate crimes affecting black lesbians (1). Our soccer team hopes to compete in the Gay Games in Chicago and the Outgames in Montreal later this year, if we can get funding.

Why did you come to the WSF? What were your expectations?

Zanele: I came to the Forum to join forces with other lesbians. I was invited to come by Phumi Mtetwa of the LGBT South-South Dialogue, because she knew about the work I am doing on sexuality in South Africa and also to do a presentation on homophobia and our struggles to obtain legislation against hate crimes.

I expected to see many lesbians. If this is the space for everyone, how is it that there aren’t more young lesbians at this Forum? If there had been many of us, it would have been easier to get a space to meet, in the cases when our events were double-booked. It would have been better if we were more. We have to mobilize people and also help each other in having access to resources. It would also be helpful to have our own independent papers.

I hope that when the WSF goes to Africa, to that homophobic Kenya, we will be more visible. I hope I can mobilize many people from Africa.

This has been a learning experience for me. I have usually exhibited in much more formal spaces, galleries, conferences. The space here is much simpler. I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be a sanitary space all the time.

I get to showcase in spaces where there are a lot of people, who go because they know there’s something off, something freaky. Some call it provocative. So they go, because they’ve heard of these provocative images.

Why have a sexual diversity forum within the WSF?

Zanele: To be vocal, to be recognized, to be respected, to be included, because there is no way to deal with your issues without you being there. To make sure that there is a voice for your particular community. You cannot expect people to deal with your problems if you are not present and say, these are my issues, I need your support.

How do you use your art as part of your activism?

Zanele: I use photography as a means to communicate my issues and other people’s issues. In Johannesburg there is nothing of the sort. It’s my own personal issues and I think that if it’s not done, it will never be done. I make sure that I get to be in mainstream spaces. There are people who won’t like what they’ll see. Just as you have Justice and Peace kissing (2), I also have images of two women kissing. Even though we live in a democratic country, some people won’t agree with our views.

Do you try to be provocative on purpose?

Zanele: No. It’s not that I want to provoke people; I’m doing something that I think is right, that makes me express myself freely. Others have a right to oppose. But that’s not my intention; my intention is to be heard, and to say this is a problem. Sometimes, activists or politicians are not accepted in different spaces, which is why they lose their lives.

What projects are you working on?

Zanele: I’m doing a lot of things. I’m working on three projects now: lesbian sexuality; women and sexuality, looking at the issue of virginity inspections; and self and other women’s portraits and bodies. I want to tell a story of where I come from and how I was affected by different things. I use photography for that.


[Series of pictures of a young naked woman near the ocean surrounded by condom balloons, to be used for a campaign on lesbian well-being]

Zanele: Do you practice safer sex, if there’s anything you can use to protect yourself? Gay men can use condoms, but for us… do I have to ask for a blood test to sleep with a woman?

We haven’t even started talking about lesbian safer sex. There are no booklets, there’s nothing to inform people on how to take precautions. You don’t even think of herpes. The only thing you talk about is HIV. But what about syphilis? What about hepatitis? That is why, in 2004, we produced a pamphlet, “Woman loving woman and sexually transmitted infections – STI”

I am personally involved in my photographic projects. I cannot take your piece of flesh without being involved. Most of the time, it’s outsiders looking at us, taking our pictures. I am very much involved with the people I portray; I am one of them. I just love women. I just look at them and ¡wow!

I also give people a space to talk about how they feel as lesbians, as a hate crime survivor. We go through a healing together as well.

The woman in these pictures is so beautiful. Her mother died of AIDS in 2004. Her partner has breast cancer. She experienced a whole lot of abuse from strangers and from people she knew and trusted. At 21 she’s like a 43-year-old woman because of her experiences. So, we give that woman a space, not to make her feel like a victim, but to feel at home and know she has a sister.

[Picture of a group of bare-breasted young women going for virginity testing]

Zanele: These women are virgins. When I took this picture, I said to myself that I have to avoid voyeurism as much as possible. I had to think to myself, what position do I take? Do I look at this person as a photographer, or do I look at her as a person, being involved as a woman? So I looked at her and thought, maybe I’m doing something wrong here, but I’ve never, never seen [breasts with aureolas] like hers. There’s nothing wrong. When women go for virginity testing, they walk bare-breasted. Men can easily show their upper bodies, but women don’t have that privilege. We are so concerned about what people are going to say about our breasts. There’s a feeling of inferiority because that is how we are defined as women. But I look at this woman and say, these people are making their own statement and they’re doing it without any fear.


(1) The main objectives of “The rose has thorns” Campaign are: the immediate enactment of comprehensive anti-hate crimes legislation, better service from the police for lesbian victims of hate-motivated violence and abuse, increased sensitivity of mainstream service providers, and improved ability to provide support and assistance. Taken from Zanele Muholi’s presentation in the workshop “Proposals and initiatives in the struggle against homophobia”, Social Forum for Sexual Diversity, Caracas, January 2006.

(2) The image in a banner, stickers and a quilt launched in Peru by the lesbian feminist group GALF in the context of the Day Against Violence Against Women, where Justice and Peace are two women kissing