Wed Oct 26 21:15:13 SAST 2016

Black lesbians shot without judgment

Michael Smith | 20 September, 2016 07:46
LONG, HARD LOOK: Nqobile Dlamini, Umlazi township, Durban

The story of South African women could easily, to the uninitiated, read as a litany of victims. We regularly have the highest rape statistics in the world, and in 2012 Interpol called our country the ''rape capital of the world".

Our president, apparently, if his court testimony is anything to go by, doesn't hold female sovereignty in high regard.

And, of course, one of the biggest stories to emerge from our shores over the last three years was the horrendous and surreal saga of Reeva Steenkamp's murder by Oscar Pistorius. The reporting on the ensuing court drama focused largely on his trauma, his story and his impending jail sentence, often neglecting the broken and dead female body at the centre of it all.

Less well known is the story of Eudy Simelane. A midfielder for the South African women's national soccer team, Simelane was attacked, raped and murdered in 2008. International NGO ActionAid said at the time that the murder was a hate crime, perpetrated against her because of her openly lesbian lifestyle in the apparently intolerant KwaThema township, her home town.


STAR STARE: MaGesh Zungu, Brooklyn, New York

Simelane is emblematic of the pervasive, tenacious intolerance towards black lesbians in South Africa. Our country perversely birthed the term ''corrective rape"; some South African male heterosexuals believe that women can have the gayness raped out of them.

And as much as their lifestyle and sexual preferences have brought the members of the lesbian community censure, violence and even death, one of the greatest advocates of lesbian and transgender freedom, Zanele Muholi, resists the urge to indulge in any sort of pictorial exploitation.

Far from it. Muholi presents no victims in her commemorative show Faces and Phases 10 in the newish upstairs space at Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein. Scarred women, sure; women and trans men barely conceal their emotional turmoil behind archly confrontational eyes, but they look on, and the cumulative effect of 118 stares fixed upon you is compelling.

You'll find no suffering porn here, no black bodies needing your middle-class gaze to complete them.

SEE YOU SEE ME: Ayanda Zulu, Parktown, Johannesburg Pictures: ZANELE MUHOLI

Muholi is famous for her unflinching portrayal of the black lesbian community. Her series have ranged from gripping self-portraits, in which she toys with notions of the ''exoticised" black subject, to intimate portrayals of erotic moments between women. This latter vein of her work raised the ire of then-Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana who, in 2010, walked out of a group exhibition on Constitution Hill rather than deal with some of Muholi's tender images of black lesbian love.

And yet it is this series of simple portraits that's been the mainstay of her career. I must admit to being sceptical of her work for a long time. She seemed to fit too easily into a formula of young photographers using photographic portraiture with high production values to investigate identity politics.

One is still almost assured, at any major group show, to find something that loosely fits that description. But Muholi's work has come to stand out from the rest, partially by virtue of her tenacity in sticking with this theme but also because there is an authenticity to each image.

Sitters (few of whom sit, by the way: their body language is seldom passive) present themselves through their clothing, through their contexts (home interiors, moody backdrops) in ways that they seem to own.

Muholi develops strong relationships with her subjects; many appear twice or even three times, their defiant presence - in a country that frequently doesn't protect them as its constitution promises to do - documented over the decade of the project's genesis.

As poet and writer Jackie Mondi states in the exhibition text, revisiting this project 10 years on is, for many of the participants, a big deal ''simply because they are still alive".


If you have an opinion you would like to share on this article, please send us an e-mail to the Times LIVE iLIVE team. In the mean time, click here to view the Times LIVE iLIVE section.