what! dont you see when you look at me?

“What dont you see when you look at me”, is a brave intervention by visual activist Zanele Muholi. In this video installation she uses her own body [being] to examine the Western gaze and mapping of the Black female body within a ‘white’ space. In photographing and projecting her own body as the subject of art and resistance, Zanele includes herself in the visual documentation which speaks to the “resistance and existence of Black lesbians” in South Africa.

The textured or coloured body has a way of constraining the viewer/the gazer, resulting in the reproduction of prejudice, marginalization, and denial of the diversity of the black female body. For instance, there are still misconceptions about black bodies and the desire that runs through it, as we are often perceived as hypersexual, heterosexual, infected, and diseased.

Symbols such as feathers, a black tire, a sausage, and a white background are used to represent not only living objects or human organs, but also the relationship between the self as being and the physical world. Representation of each piece in detail, for example, feathers represents a dark forest/ pubic hair. A black tire represents a safe haven/ womb or a place of belonging. A sausage can be perceived as a phallus but represents what is inside the womb and intestines that cause confusion and that struggle that comes with agitation and emotions when interfered with. A white background is the user/ specter who always believe that they can appropriate anything/ anybody as means of exploration/ exploring.

The visuals are accompanied by different sounds and my own voice reciting the poem “I ache for you” by Yvonne Onakeme Etaghene (2004). The aesthetics of sexuality and desire are interrogated, as is the focus on (hetero) gendered understandings of maternity, fertility, motherhood, femininity, African womanhood, longing, lust, and (lack of) passion that (some) women’s identities are always subjected to.

My performance is a way of returning the gaze, as I am looking out from the ‘white’ space my body inhabits, is surrounded by. I look away from it, but the viewer will always see my subjectivity, a black, naked, female body “against” and in opposition to “whiteness.” Due to centuries of European exploitation and oppression, black women were never allowed, taught, or socialized to capture their own (positive) images or explore their own sexual and erotic freedom, and to look back, stare back.

The title is taken from a collection/ series of photographs in my own publication Only half the Picture (Muholi, 2006). My approach to the question of body politics and the video is inspired by readings in Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution, focusing on the work of performance artists like Sacred Naked Nature Girls (SNNG), Berni Searle (SA), Tracy Rose (SA), Carolee Schneeman (Canada) and many female artists of the 1970s till present, who used radical performing arts to deal with issues of inequity and social justice. Most used their own bodies to express their concerns and issues.
REFERENCES: Sherene H. Razack, “When Place Becomes Race”, in Razack, ed., __Race Space and the Law Unmapping a White Settler Society__Between the Lines Press: Toronto , 2002, p.5.

Zanele blogs at Muzane’s Weblog