The black sheep

NAF/Basa Arts Jour­nal­ist of the Year Lwandile Fikeni chooses Zanele Muholi as #Trend­ing’s pho­tog­ra­pher of the year. He re­views her lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion

CityPress - - Trend­ing - Som­nyama Ngonyama by Zanele Muholi at Steven­son, Jo­han­nes­burg

‘ We have lost a lot of peo­ple be­cause of hate crimes ... You never know if you’re go­ing to see this per­son again the fol­low­ing day,” says Zanele Muholi about Brave Beau­ties, her new, grow­ing se­ries of queer por­traits. As with her se­ries Faces and Phases, it is, in many ways, a protest against how the sta­tus quo marginalises and sub­ju­gates cer­tain iden­ti­ties to make them its sub­class.

In her new ex­hi­bi­tion, Som­nyama Ngonyama, Muholi re­sponds to a num­ber of other is­sues, which in­ter­sect, even un­com­fort­ably, with the work she is known for. Th­ese is­sues are ren­dered with the same ur­gency: the placid, solemn faces that look you straight in the eye.

The ef­fect is not only that you are gaz­ing into the lives of her sub­jects, but that her sub­jects are aware of you, and there is a re­cip­ro­cated know­ing. It ex­changes the po­si­tion of sub­ject and viewer, which lends it its poignancy: that it is not queer­ness from with­out but our own queer­ness from within that we must ac­knowl­edge as not Other, but as Same within our pe­cu­liar hu­man­ness to be any pos­si­ble hu­man vari­a­tion there is.

For me, her im­ages have a neu­tral­is­ing ef­fect by not ob­jec­ti­fy­ing “de­viant” sex­u­al­ity, but bring­ing us closer to our in­nate queer­ness and avert­ing the fear of be­ing in­tim­i­dated by what we find in the mir­ror when we’re alone.

A lam­i­nated, larger-than-life im­age hangs on the wall to your left as you make your way to the re­cep­tion area at Steven­son. It is a self-por­trait of Muholi in what ap­pears to be sheared black sheep­skin draped around her head to give the il­lu­sion of an over­grown coif. A breast is in full view.

“You see a lot of nip­ple. I grew up in KZN. I’m Zulu,” she says. “Where I come from, a breast is a com­mon point of your vis­ual space. It is not sex­ual.” The por­trait is un­for­get­table and al­most haunt­ing, with the added, height­ened dra­matic ef­fect of the im­age hav­ing been drained of light, mak­ing its black­ness ap­pear to project light from within.

“I don’t paint my­self black, be­cause I’m black any­ways,” she says. The im­ages are com­puter ma­nip­u­lated to al­ter the con­trast and bring out the melanin buried in her skin, pour­ing it out on to the sur­face like a thick, slick, oily black­ness. The piece re­lates to the pen­cil test of apartheid in the 60s and 70s. A gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crat would stick the pen­cil in your hair and if it stuck, then it proved your black­ness. It was a vi­o­lent act of Other­ing hu­man be­ings to sub­ju­gate them.

The choice to use her body as a site of cri­tique is a move away from us­ing her friends in por­traits. Aes­thet­i­cally, the im­ages are men­ac­ing and the al­lu­sion to black­face is highly trou­bling. If the ear­lier work read as the dig­ni­fied re­sis­tance of an artist who felt (and still does) the need to doc­u­ment Othered iden­ti­ties, then Som­nyama Ngonyama re­veals a fe­roc­ity be­hind that placid work. It al­ludes to the frus­tra­tion, the anger, the dis­ap­point­ments that come with ded­i­cat­ing your­self to a coun­try that wants to kill you in nearly ev­ery cor­ner for rea­sons you can’t change even if you tried: you’re a woman; you’re queer; you’re black.

The sheared black sheep­skin sug­gests she is the black sheep of her fam­ily.

“It doesn’t mat­ter how use­less your straight brother can be ... be­cause he can have chil­dren, your mother and fa­ther will still re­spect him more,” she says.

“Queer al­ler­gies start from our fam­i­lies be­fore we even face the world out there. In short, I can­not di­vorce my queer self from the per­son I am. Every­thing I do be­comes the vis­ual politic of who I am.”

Brave Beau­ties, on the other hand, is more clas­sic Muholi. The por­traits are of black trans women and/or fem­i­nine gay men. The project was in­spired by tra­di­tional mag­a­zine cov­ers.

“I was think­ing: would South Africa as a demo­cratic coun­try have an im­age of a trans woman as the cover of a mag­a­zine?” She pauses. “I want to see 100% vis­i­bly for the queer com­mu­nity in this coun­try as a way of chal­leng­ing these pho­bias.”

It was upon see­ing Cait­lyn Jen­ner on the cover of Van­ity Fair that the idea crys­tallised. “We need to build our own ar­chives.” Her work takes as its sub­ject the im­por­tance of his­tory and mem­ory. “The name and sur­name in each por­trait is sig­nif­i­cant. Th­ese girls en­ter beauty pageants to change mind-sets in the com­mu­ni­ties where they live, the same com­mu­ni­ties where they are most likely to be ha­rassed, or worse, which is why I call them brave beau­ties,” says the artist. The ex­hi­bi­tion is on at Steven­son in Braam­fontein un­til De­cem­ber 19 and

again from Jan­uary 4 to 29

PHO­TOS: ZANELE MUHOLI. COUR­TESY STEVEN­SON CAPE TOWN AND JO­HAN­NES­BURG

BLACK LIKE ME

Zanele Muholi turns the cam­era on her­self in Som­nyama IV, Oslo, 2015

BRAVE BEAUTY Lee Siba, Park­town, Jo­han­nes­burg, 2014

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.