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.
CRAFTY SYMBOLISM: Onlookers were drawn to the Faces and Faces wall, full of black and white photographs taken by visual artist Zanele Muholi. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Walking onto the eerily silent ramp that leads to the new exhibition at the Wits Art Museum, one is met by death. Small mounds of sand stand,holding up colourful wooden crosses that have dates of birth and death written on them.These graves that lie in glass containers are in the Zanele Muholi’s Mo(u)rning section of the exhibition.
The next piece of the collection, Faces and Faces catches the eye immediately as a wall of black and white portraits look one in the eye. There are some gaps between some of the photographs by Muholi which speak to the nameless but dated graves.
“The spaces were left there to show that they could have been a part of this section of the exhibition if they weren’t killed for being gay and lesbian,” explained facilitator Ace Kekana, whose face appears in one of Muholi’s portraits. Queer and Trans Art-iculations: Collaborative Art for Social Change is a collaborative exhibition by visual artists, Muholi and Gabrielle le Roux. [pullquote align=”right”]”…men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians, who beat their wives – they walk the streets as free men.”[/pullquote]
Muholi’s work is on the ground floor of the museum with a focus on the LGBTI community in South Africa – their beauty, their struggle, their murders and more. Muholi is not only a photographer, so her work varies and in this exhibit includes some of her bead work and a documentary film.
The most elaborate display in Muholi’s section are rosaries that hang from the ceiling. The beads in the rosaries are tennis balls and kitchen utensils. The vertical end of the cross at the end of the rosary is made from a knife which represents the violent killings of members of the LGBTI community experience, and the horizontal end from braai forks to represent the supposed hell killers think they’ve sent their victims to, or perhaps the lived hell victims endure.
This is one of the rosaries that hang from the ceiling. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
“When people kill based on gender they like to say it’s for religious reasons, these crosses represent how dangerous that kind of thinking can be,” said Kekana.
The most moving part of Muholi’s exhibited work is a wall with a number of written messages from victims and their family members about their experiences. One of the messages read: “Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians, who beat their wives – they walk the streets as free men.”
In contrast to the quiet reception on entering Muholi’s floor of the exhibition, walking down the ramp into the basement area, sounds from the television screens set up with short documentaries by Le Roux lure attendees with their mixed up buzz.
Le Roux’s collection, Proudly African & Transgender and Proudly Trans in Turkey looks at the experiences “trans and intersex people in Turkey and Africa,” said Kekana. Another facilitator, Thekwane Mpisholo is in one of the portraits put on display by Le Roux.
The painted portraits are inclusive of their “subjects” and this can be seen in the quotes the artist let them scribble on their actual portraits.
The newly launched Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, helped to find the funding for this project. “They’re the ones who helped us with the planning and funding because they (Diversity Studies) study things that aren’t ordinarily studied by other faculties – that’s how they came on board,” said Mpisholo.
There is a lot to read, watch and see at this exhibition and people can do so until March 30 2014 at the Wits Art Museum.