A personal reflection on the career and photographs (particularly the Faces and Phases series) of Zanele Muholi by Donna A M Smith, who co-founded FEW (Forum for the Empowerment of Women) with Muholi.
Stevenson Gallery recently hosted Muholi’s exhibition, Faces and Phases 10, a special project celebrating the 10th anniversary of her acclaimed portrait series documenting black lesbian and transgender individuals from South Africa and beyond.
Much has been written and said about award-winning photographer, Zanele Muholi, and her ground-breaking work of documenting the lives of black lesbians and transgender persons in South Africa and other parts of the continent, as well as in the diaspora. Not all of it has been complimentary. In fact, I overheard a conversation some time ago among a group of young, black, queer women activist intellectuals bemoaning the fact that no-one was telling ‘our’ stories.
When I suggested that Muholi was doing exactly that, they dismissed her work as elitist, in that its primary target is academics in North America and Europe; and biased, in that it focuses on poor, black lesbians in the townships of South Africa, who have experienced violence and other forms of abuse…
At the same time, I can’t help but thinking, is this not the appeal of Muholi’s Faces and Phases series – its authenticity, its sincerity, its honesty? The fact that it tells the story that Muholi knows, the story of her friends, neighbours, colleagues, community, people she grew up with – her story? The fact that it dares to tell the story through the eyes of those who live it, to those who would presume to tell it on their behalf?
When I met Muholi 17 years ago… She had no camera, no formal training in photography, no plan, no connections, no following, no crew. But she loved pictures – not just taking them, but pictures in and of themselves – the stories they tell, the way they are able to capture particular moments in time, in the way words cannot. And she loved people, being with people, living and working and making things happen for/with people, taking pictures of people being themselves.
In particular, Muholi loved/loves women – not just romantically or sexually as a lesbian, but with a profound appreciation and respect for our power, as women; our capacity for understanding, compassion and nurturing; our strength, forbearance and resilience; our capabilities, our wisdom; our ability to achieve whatever we set our minds to, against all odds, and without the advantage of male privilege.
Most importantly, Muholi had a vision of the quality of life that she and other black lesbians should be enjoying, and an almost scary determination to close the gap between their lived realities, and that vision. And she knew instinctively that the place to start would be to expose that gap, by documenting our lives and telling our stories, in our voices, in various spaces.
Previously, what was seen in the media about black lesbians was either the product of some heterosexual male’s uninformed imagination, or some scandalous titbit of celebrity gossip, that bore no relation to our experiences. There was very little actual research, and such as existed was mostly generated by journalists and academics overseas whose primary sources were few and far between.
Images of black lesbians were virtually non-existent. It was the need to reverse this trend that led to Muholi’s first Photography Experience (PXP1), as part of the skills development programme of Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), the black lesbian organisation we co-founded in 2002. She wanted to share what she had learned with others, and empower them to tell their own stories on their own terms…
But it must be understood that Faces and Phases did not start as a standalone photography project. Its context was FEW’s work of documenting and reporting hate crimes against black lesbians in South African townships. As part of the interviews – which often took place over many visits during which trust grew and bonds developed – Muholi would request permission to capture images of the interviewees, to go with their stories…
Over the decade since its inception, the series has made nonsense of the assertion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, by placing before the public, image after image of very African homosexual women and transgender persons. ‘We exist, we are here, we are part of the fabric of our societies,’ the series screams.
But Faces and Phases is about more than visibility – it is also about urgency. Muholi is always careful to explain that the individuals in her photographs are not subjects, but participants… Participants who choose how they wish to be presented – the setting, their clothes, even their poses, where they feel strongly enough about it. Despite this variety of contexts, Muholi’s style is distinctive, and as uncompromising as the gaze that participants return to the camera.
Making the portraits black and white – Muholi’s favourite medium – immediately evokes the racial tension that is still so very much a part of the South African landscape. The faces are unsmiling, but open, inviting engagement, making it clear that this is not entertainment, but communication… The eyes in particular ask the question: What don’t you see when you look at me? They invite a closer, deeper look into them, to see the pain and joys, the hopes, the fears, the love and laughter, that are all part of what the person behind the image has experienced, and who she is.
There is a certain dignity about each portrait, and the defiant stance – head raised, shoulders back – says: ‘accept me as I am, stop trying to make me into what you want. And if you won’t, I’m willing to resist, to stand up to whatever you might throw at me. I may bend, I may wobble, but I will not allow you to break me.’
Over the decade since the first Faces & Phases exhibition, many black lesbian lives have been lost, either to violence or illnesses related to violence. In the same year that Busi died, another FEW stalwart – multi-talented artist, activist and mother, Buhle Msibi – succumbed to an Aids-related condition which, as bad as it often got, rarely prevented her from showing up at, and contributing to, our events and activities.
The series seeks, as well, to call to mind and honour them, and others like them – death is, after all, one phase that we will all experience, sooner or later. And, before that, there is aging; and, before that, career changes, and life events like marriage, loss of loved ones, becoming parents, re-locating; and before that, the movement from childhood, to adulthood, to maturity…
But there is another type of transition that Faces and Phases has always spoken to, and that is the transition from one gender to another. Long before the LGBTI community had any proper conversations or developed any real understanding of what it meant to be transgender; and long before transgender issues became the flavour of the month for funders in the gender and sexuality sector, the F&P exhibitions included images of women who were so masculine-presenting as to completely turn on their heads whatever notions viewers may have previously had about gender.
So, then, Faces and Phases is also about claiming and occupying space – not only political and social space, but also space for self-reflection. Muholi makes every effort to ensure that the participants in the project are able to attend and see the results of their work together, including sponsored transport for those who would not otherwise be able to make it…
Faces and Phases is more, much more than just a collection of photographic works for exhibition. It is a relationship between photographer and participants, participants and society. It locates black lesbians and transgender persons within the body politic, and guarantees that we will not be obliterated from history. It is a record, for all posterity, of our presence here, an assurance that never again can it be said that ‘such human beings’ do not exist in Africa.