Ten years of photographer Zanele Muholi’s ‘Faces and Phases’

Photo series participant, Lerato Dumse through her phases. Photo: Olwethu Boso

Photo series participant, Lerato Dumse through her phases.                               Photo: Olwethu Boso

Visual artist and photographer Zanele Muholi’s new exhibition, Faces and Phases, centered around queer bodies opened on Thursday at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg.

The exhibition opening comes two days after South Africa marked a decade since the introduction of the Civil Union Bill in the National Assembly. The bill legalised same-sex marriage and civil partnership throughout South Africa.

“It feels like I’m a part of something great, part of history even though at the time I didn’t know it would be this big,” said Shirley Ndaba, a participant who has been documented by Muholi over the past ten years as part of the Faces and Phases project.

Muholi admitted that working on a series of this magnitude can be emotionally and physically exhausting but is humbled by the participants as they have taken risks with this project. Some come from oppressive African countries when it comes to gender and sexual rights and have dedicated their faces and time to the series.

The internationally-award winning photographer is currently focused in producing follow-up photos of her participants as they encounter the new phases and progress in their lives.

Muholi marks the course of each of her participants’ growth by exhibiting the initial portraits alongside those recently taken, allowing for a continuation in the storytelling of her participants – as she refers to them – lives and journeys. The photographs feel confrontational, the subjects stare into the eyes of the viewer as though to ask, “why are you looking at me?”

“‘Faces’ express the person, and ‘Phases’ signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another. ‘Faces’ is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist and the many lesbians, women and transwomen and transmen I have interacted with from different places,” said Muholi.

Safety system for black lesbian community

Members of the black lesbian community in Johannesburg have created a “system” that provides safety for one another while travelling around the city.

There are no specific rules or protocol for anyone to follow, but rather a “system informed by common sense”, according to one of its creators, Busisiwe Deyi.

“We organise safe transportation and when someone is dropped off, they have to inform the others that they got home safe,” she told Wits Vuvuzela.

Last week, a friend did not check in, so they turned to social media to try and find her. They were worried that something had happened to her, so “had to make sure” that they found her.

A group of them had been part of “activist organising” so were all tired, why is why the missing friend had forgotten to check in. Hours later, after they had still not heard from her, they began to worry.

“I have friends who have been attacked.”

Transport is provided by friends within the circle who have cars, and are willing to drive to areas that are far away. If they arrange their own way home then they check-in with each other when reaching home safely. Sometimes, people offer to walk each other home if the destination is not too far away.

A system “evolved organically”

According to Deyi, the system is something that has “evolved organically”, with the hope of ensuring that individuals felt and were less vulnerable when commuting.

Groups like this exist all over Johannesburg, according to a second year BA student at Wits, who asked to remain anonymous. Both she and Deyi said that there were no pre-existing structures like this, which deals with the issue in a “systematic and organised manner”.

Here at Wits, individuals have to notify a designated member of the group of what form of transport they are using, who they got into a car, bus or taxi with, and provide the registration number of the vehicle, “just in case something happens”.

Although no one has ever gone missing, according to another student, in her first year of a BA, there is a risk that something might happen.

“I have friends who have been attacked more than once, because they look gay,” she said.

Deyi agreed. “A lot of our friends are butch/masculine looking and [this] increases their visibility as targets of violence.”