As South African photographer and LGBTQ visual activist Zanele Muholi — joined on the stage by Lerato Dumse, a participant in Muholi’s photography and member of her activist group, Inkanyiso — stared out at the modest audience from the stage of the Carnegie Lecture Hall on Tuesday night as a part of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s 2013 Carnegie International exhibition, she noted her pleasant surprise at the incredible diversity of the viewers before her.
“This looks like the America I see on TV,” said Muholi before delving into the more serious matter at hand: her work as a photographer and activist in documenting the lives of the South African black lesbian and transgender communities, as well as combating the hate crimes that are becoming increasingly common in her home country.
Muholi’s work in the exhibition, titled Faces and Phases, is a part of her larger project to archive the lives and experiences of black lesbians and transgender communities across the world. Though primarily focused on South Africa, her portraits — black and white photographs of individuals that express the serious, unwavering dignity of the participants — are aimed at creating documentation of the experiences of their subjects, thus filling a void in the public discourse on gender, race and identity. For her work, Muholi received the 2013 Carnegie International’s Fine Prize, which is granted to an emerging artist in the exhibition.
According to Ayanah Moor, a Pittsburgh artist and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who introduced Muholi to the audience, Muholi’s more refined portrayals of this community are much needed.
“I think that mainstream representations of queer people, particularly queer people of color, [are] not very sophisticated. It’s often very narrow. Particularly right now, there is a popular narrative around marriage equality, but that doesn’t extend to other issues that people face who are poor and black and queer or poor and black and trans and all the different ways that our identities can be layered,” Moor said after the lecture.
Part history lecture, part film exhibition and part conversation, Muholi’s lecture walked viewers through a brief history of LGBTQ issues in South Africa, from the establishment of a constitution that included LGBTQ individuals in 1996 to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2006. As she gravely explained, however, the expansion of legal rights for the LGBTQ community has been undermined by a rash of hate crimes against these groups — particularly black lesbians.
According to Muholi, this disconnect between the promise of protection under the South African constitution and the actual experience of the black lesbian community has become a point of contention for her.
“It’s one thing to say that we are protected by the constitution, but it’s another to see that the constitution is practical,” Muholi said.
Of the hate crimes endured, Muholi said, the most heinous is known as corrective or curative rape, in which lesbian women are raped by men in the belief that the act will somehow change the sexual orientation of the victim. Curative rape has been documented by various news outlets over the years, including a 2011 BBC article documenting the rape and murder of Noxolo Nogwaza. According to the BBC report, Nogwaza was disfigured, stabbed and raped by eight men and murdered near Johannesburg.
Muholi noted after the lecture that the roots of many of these hate crimes lie in the traditional, often patriarchal beliefs of many South Africans. “When you think about hate crimes, and how black lesbians are affected by hate crimes specifically, you’re dealing with a lot of traditional spaces, where people assume that by being black and by being a woman you need to become somebody’s property and be a traditional wife where you have to take orders from your husband,” she said.
As Muholi sees it, this structure “needs to be challenged and also needs to be undone, because it’s wrong. It puts a lot of women in danger and means that a lot of women’s voices are silenced.”
Muholi’s work is not limited to photography. She notes that many of the participants in her activism work with Inkanyiso, including Dumse, are involved in advocacy, as well, in some form or another.
Dumse said that she was first drawn to Inkanyiso when she discovered that when Muholi took a portrait photo, she was “not just taking the photograph and showing it to some Western people and that’s it.”
Despite the weight of her subject matter and the crimes that she works to expose, Muholi also strives to emphasize the elements of love and intimacy that she sees in the communities she documents. When asked what viewers should draw from her work, her message was clear.
“Live, love and learn from each other,” she said.