Brave Beau­ties and the dark Lioness

Mail & Guardian - - Art - Chaze Matakala

On the last day of Au­gust — so-called Women’s Month — Steven­son Gallery in Cape Town hosted a Zanele Muholi ret­ro­spec­tive of the pho­tog­ra­phers’ decade-long body of work. The gift that keeps on giv­ing, Brave Beau­ties and Som­nyama Ngonyama, is vis­ual ac­tivism and self-love at its finest.

The evening was warmer than ex­pected, the sun’s colours auspicious. I was wear­ing far too many lay­ers for a bike ride to Wood­stock dur­ing a golden hour but maybe I was burn­ing be­cause some­thing about the day felt sa­cred and su­per­charged at the same time. Stum­bling up the ramp and into Steven­son, I un­rav­elled my­self for what was to come. The en­ergy com­ing from the white walls of the gallery bounced off the larg­erthan-life pres­ence of the Brave Beau­ties.

The bod­ies pop­u­lat­ing the Brave Beau­ties pho­to­graphs found them­selves im­printed, al­most in time it­self. Transwomen, Queer and les­bian in­di­vid­u­als from across South Africa found them­selves in­stalled as wall­pa­per in Muholi’s sig­na­ture black-and-white pho­to­graphs, re­sult­ing in a per­ma­nence of scale and be­ing.

Each wall­pa­per por­trait sug­gested preser­va­tion as op­posed to con­sump­tion. Just as there are no ide­o­log­i­cal frames big enough to con­tain the in­fi­nite and fluid ex­pres­sions of who and what we are, there are no frames big enough to con­tain the pow­er­ful images of de­sir­ing sub­jects, deny­ing the spec­ta­tor that chance to ob­jec­tify.

Thriv­ing in the time we find our­selves, vis­ual cul­ture has its es­tab­lished aes­thetic val­ues and gen­der stereo­types. What the Brave Beau­ties through Muholi have man­i­fested is in de­fi­ance of those bor­ing and rigid con­cepts. Here, re­turn­ing the gaze be­comes an act of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance. Bear­ing wit­ness to self-ac­cep­tance and self-love makes us even more aware that we are liv­ing in an il­lu­sion of trans­parency.

The gaze was not the only mech­a­nism that was tested at Steven­son that night. A wall fac­ing the court­yard was ded­i­cated to self-ex­pres­sion of the writ­ten form. A steplad­der and black and red mark­ers were pro­vided, and those present on open­ing night were given the op­por­tu­nity to write what felt right. Some­thing like a showand-tell, but for pri­vate thoughts.

On the other side of the wall of words to live by is the on­go­ing pho­to­graphic se­ries Som­nyama Ngonyama. In vary­ing sizes, Muholi presents her ar­chive of the self. The por­traits in which Muholi takes on in­fi­nite and fluid per­sonas are united by a dark­ness ir­re­sistible and a gaze un­de­ni­able.

The gaze is a con­tentious is­sue in the lives of the marginalised and the life of the muse. To be looked at and vi­su­alised as some­thing other is an ex­pe­ri­ence many face in a con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety that pa­rades it­self as lib­eral. Yes, the Mother City is a self-in­scribed par­adise for many, but what hap­pens when that Mother City de­nies her for­got­ten child?

Ac­cord­ing to the Brave Beau­ties and Muholi, you eman­ci­pate and im­mor­talise your­self into black-and-white print. Yes, you eman­ci­pate your­self into a fam­ily that is cho­sen.

The part of the gallery that held Muholi’s many faces later be­came a space for curry din­ner, beer on tap and, of course, strug­gle songs. Gather enough queers and artists in one room, dim the lights a bit, and ha­bit­ual rit­u­als of re­sis­tance and revelry en­sue. Heels clack and hearts thump. Per­haps this is a good time to ask your­self if be­ing seen, as op­posed to be­ing looked at, is one of the many path­ways to lib­er­a­tion?

I wait pa­tiently for Muholi to fin­ish a con­ver­sa­tion with a queen who looks like the greataunt I never met but al­ways wanted to visit for hol­i­days in a home by a large body of wa­ter. Did I men­tion the up­lift­ing num­ber of queen moth­ers present on open­ing night? It was truly an epic evening of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional heal­ing.

Now’s my chance! I ask to take her por­trait and Muholi obliges. Only two shots left on my roll of film, the only pres­sure I feel is what I ap­ply to the shut­ter. I know that to­mor­row that man who works at the spot where I get my film de­vel­oped will be rav­ing about Muholi, as he al­ways does. I humbly re­ceive a sat­is­fy­ing look that re­minds me to ques­tion my­self and ev­ery­thing around me, that re­minds me that I am more than a woman ev­ery day of the year, not just in Au­gust.

Sign­ing off: Zanele Muholi at the Brave Beau­ties open­ing. Photo: Chaze Matakala

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