Confronting censorship in the face of “hyper-visibility”

Last week South African Arts & Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana walked out of the Innovative Women exhibition claiming photographs by gender activist Zanele Muholi and Nandipha Mntambo were pornographic. Whilst the Minister is entitled to her own opinion she must be mindful of her status as a minister of government and the influence she carries. By describing Zanele’s and Nandipha’s work as

Immoral, offensive and going against nation-building … there were children as young as three years old in the room … where do we draw the line between art and pornography.

she is expressing a homophobic and nationalist position which can lead to further violence against lesbians in an already hostile society. Children are bombarded daily with violence whether through the media or on the streets. Why refuse them a positive and refreshing exposure to seeing two women or any two people for that matter embracing each other with love?

Gabeeba Baderoon has written an excellent response to the Ministers action and commentary on the work of Zanele and Nandipha

Minister, what would you have seen if you had stayed and viewed the works of Nandipha Mntambo and Zanele Muholi alongside all the other artists in the Innovative Women exhibition and talked about them with other visitors?

You would have seen works that use the language of allusion, intimacy, beauty and pleasure.

During your brief glance, you may have mistaken the intimacy in Muholi’s images for pornography and the erudite allusions in Mntambo’s work for carelessness about sexual violence, but that mistake can only be sustained if you don’t truly look at their art. If you stood in front of Muholi’s photographs, you would see lesbian lives outside of the narratives of violation and pornography through which they are more commonly presented to us. You would see how her work opens up a discussion about visibility itself.

For lesbians, visibility carries an immense cost – the feminist writer Pumla Gqola calls this a “hyper-visibility” that has been used to violate lesbian lives through a sensationalistic focus on suffering that has simultaneously made it possible to ignore that suffering. Muholi’s images confront such hyper-visibility and reclaim a space for the women in her photographs away from denigration and hostility and toward presence, pleasure and wholeness. Her work shows us there is no category of human being whom it is safe to despise and whose hurt it is expedient to ignore.

Gender DynamiX have issued a press statement criticising the discriminatory and exclusionary language used by Lulu Xingwana – are lesbians, transgender, artists also not part of nation building? The action of Xingwana is even more disturbing given other attacks on lesbians, gays, transgender and intersex people.

Zanele Muholi is the kind of artist you would never have experienced in the bad old days of apartheid. She’s black, she’s a lesbian, and she has very clear messages for her community — for us. Her photography tells truths many people don’t enjoy – that there are black lesbians and gender variant people in South Africa. Her work also tells us that we are allowing the ongoing rape of black lesbians in order to “cure” them and all too often, their murders. Zanele Muholi is a symbol of the inclusiveness of the constitution.

Xingwana has publicly and officially expressed her personal negative feelings about gender variant peoples’ bodies and how they should interact. The figures in Muholi’s work are clearly not engaged in sexual activity. We interpret it as the minister’s policing of bodies and the behaviour of those bodies.

Links: South Africa’s Social Conservatism: A Real and Present Danger

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