Visual activism to inform and educate on the issues of gender and sexuality in South Africa.

The following review of Zanele’s work currently on exhibit at Monash University, Australia, was written by Alicia Renew – Manager of the Faculty Gallery and Charlotte Lamont. The photographs are Zanele’s own.

Monash University’s South African artist in residence, Zanele Muholi, uses photography and artistic experimentation to explore issues of lesbian gender and sexuality in South Africa. Through her visual activism, Muholi seeks to educate different cultures and publics on the issues facing black South African lesbians. Faced by a myriad of obstacles ranging from access to adequate contraception to hate crimes such as rape and murder, Muholi documents and examines the difficulties black South African Lesbians face when trying to find a space of equality within a patriarchally and heterosexually dominated society.

‘Phallic culture (from all accounts a redundancy) has done everything to prevent, to disable women from achieving any representation of self that would not return to the primacy of the phallus, one way or another. And while it is certain that all women are permeated by the phallocratic order, efforts to escape the system, to enter a no man’s land, are understandable, even laudable, no matter how quixotic. The injunction against essentialism seems a continuation of the repression by Western civilization of woman’s experience (of which sexuality is only a part), and it should be defied, no matter the risk’1 Mira Schor in Wet.

As Muholi tears down the mythical shrouds that surround black lesbian women in South Africa, she offers the viewer a social identity outside the male dominated realm that ruptures a previously untouched epoch. In Mbhekeni (Melbourne, 2010) Muholi approaches polygamist marriages in South African culture as an embodiment of a psychic identification and social identity as well as an erotic practice and sexual union. Polygamy, which is a common marriage practice in South Africa reasserts patriarchal hegemony Muholi asks; if a lesbian practices the masculine custom of polygamy, where will lesbian women stand within this social and cultural tradition? Maggie Humm offers;

“A system of male authority which oppresses women through its social, political and economic institutions. In any of the historical forms that patriarchal society takes, whether it is feudal, capitalist or socialist, a sex-gender system and a system of economic discrimination operate simultaneously. Patriarchy has power from men’s greater access to, and mediation of, the resources and rewards of authority structures inside and outside the home.”2

In the set of three digital photographs the ‘male’ is absent yet imitated in the series, castrated from art and society, as he becomes the cultural threat3, replacing the sexual and social threat that lesbians previously posed. Rejecting our social conditioning and sexual subordination Muholi unapologetically places herself in the image as the narcissist surrounded by her subservient wives as she explores class, culture reconfiguration and reclaiming of the body. Muholi examines two ideas in these images; that masculinity was always a form of expression, and; that masculinity has always been a performance of domination that has eternally belonged to men. Through social dissidence, Muholi challenges masculinist capital economies and the structure of the nuclear family4. A challenge that lies in representation of black lesbians is an unfixed category, constantly transgressive, and perpetually examined through representations of ideological constructions within a male system5.



In Mukho (Melbourne, 2010) the artist poses nude and embraces her lover, inviting the viewer’s gaze into passive fascination. Laura Mulvey argues a female spectator can identify with this idealised female character and the male gaze can only objectify the female he looks at6. A male’s scopophilic gaze is active and filled with desire; it invades the space of Muholi’s lovers, while the female passively fixes her eyes on her intruder. The two female forms reconstruct gender not just as sexuality but also as having an erotic life of their own, forcing us to reconsider gendered and sexual identities. The visual dialogue used in Muholi’s photography, aims to create awareness of sexual health risks within the lesbian community. Through witnessing friends succumb to sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS/HIV, the series Mukho simulates carnal desires and empowers lesbians to talk about and practice safe sex.

In her ongoing portrait series Faces & Phases, Muholi develops the female canon by emancipating the feminine. Faces & Phases (Melbourne, 2010) celebrates women’s art by celebrating the concept of ‘woman’ herself, her sexual identity, control over her body and her social experiences7. The set of eight digital photographs depicts black South African women that have relocated from South Africa to Melbourne, Australia, bringing a new cultural aspect to the fore. The use of the female identity cultivates gender dissidence and dresses up individualism to simulate political commitment. Celebrating the feminine, the artist promotes female sexuality altering the mystification surrounding the female sexual identity. Departing from psychoanalytic queer theory, Muholi demonstrates her physical connection with Australia, a country built on multiculturalism. The sterile white walls of the gallery that alienate visitor and artist alike are transformed into a reflection of Muholi. The academic institutionalisation of queer theory confronts its ambivalent audience. The women in the images gaze actively at the interior space, inverting the heretical gallery system and disassociating it with past heterogeneous cultures.

The rape of black Lesbians in South Africa is fast becoming an intolerable trend8, with 10 cases reported weekly in Cape Town alone. These rapes are identified as ‘Curative’ or ‘Corrective’ rapes, are acts of subjugation in which men use their power physically and emotionally, to correct and cure their victim’s sexuality. In both traditional and contemporary South African society, the role of the African woman is one of procreation and nurture. Unable to comply with these maternal (but patriarchally imposed) paradigms, Lesbian’s pose a threat to the virility of male sexuality and the masculine phallus. The equation reads like a Freudian castration complex, where the lesbian replaces the father figure; Lesbian sexuality threatens to emasculate men and masculinity. Understanding their threat to men is both complex and multifaceted; is it the threat of a foreign sexuality, is it the threat of a sexuality that is both unattainable and unable to be possessed? Muholi’s aim is to investigate the motivations and the consequences of these hate crimes on black lesbians and her community.

Muholi’s latest experimental work further works within her realm of visual activism to inform and educate different publics on the issues of gender and sexuality in South Africa. Produced during her stay as an artist in residence at Monash University, Muholi relates her work to the rape of Millicent Gaika. In April 2010, Gaika was savagely raped by a neighbour in her township of Gugulethu, in an act that spurred the headline, ‘You are not a man, rapist tells lesbian’. For five hours, Gaika was repeatedly raped and told by her attacker that, ‘I know you are a lesbian. You are not a man, you think you are, but I am going to show you, you are a woman. I am going to make you pregnant. I am going to kill you’9. This was not the first time Gaika had been raped for her sexuality, and with inadequate prosecution of perpetrators, Gaika, in conjunction with the entire black lesbian community, must live in fear. Stripped of the ability to live full and sexually equal lives, men use rape as a tool to make lesbians invisible.

Muholi’s experimental work titled Into Yami, a Zulu word that translates as a ‘personal possession’ or ‘private part’, focuses on the vagina. Muholi, on a background of black paint, uses the viscosity of red paint to convey the vaginal interior. In an exploration of the effects of rape, the vagina, a place of pleasure, has been stabbed through the canvas; mutilated and removed to a site of irreversible physical and psychological pain.

In another piece, Muholi has constructed the vagina from a collage of images of men’s muscular arms and feathers, to illustrate the binaries of the power struggle between masculinity and femininity, and between emasculation and violence. As a portrayal of the layers of woman, it can be perceived as an examination of the internal struggle of the rapist’s victim. In her main piece, Muholi has fragmented an already existing image, a woman’s face, and constructed a body of masculine legs. This fragmentation is suggestive of the psychological rupture undergone by the victim, who will be forever in a state of emotional fragmentation. It is as if her body is dominated by emasculated masculinity, and her mind has become psychologically fragmented. As Muholi herself has stated, ‘It hurts, it leaves indelible scars, it maims one’s soul’. Muholi uses her experimental work not only to explore humiliation of rape along with its psychological and physical burdens, but to communicate and create awareness of the hate crimes endured by black lesbians in South Africa.

In her visual examination of the issues faced by black South African Lesbians, Muholi astutely explores the power play between patriarchal society and the assertion of Lesbian identity and sexuality. Exploring the issues of patriarchy, masculinity, and equality, Muholi not only educates her audience, but forces them to reassess their conceptions of queer gender and identity within the confines of a patriarchally heterosexual society and culture.

Endnote: South African Constitutional Laws regarding the legal union of Homosexuals:

On 8th May 1996 South Africa became the first country in the world to enshrine lesbian and gay rights in its Constitution: Clause 9. (3) reads: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth.” A similar provision had previously been included in the Interim Constitution adopted in December 1993. The ANC had formally recognised lesbian and gay rights as part of its policy at its policy conference in May 1992.

Same-Sex marriage became legal in South Africa on 30 November 2006 when the Civil Unions Bill was enacted after having been passed by the South African Parliament earlier that month. A ruling by the Constitutional Court on 1 December 2005 had imposed a deadline of 1 December 2006 to make same-sex marriage legal. South Africa became the fifth country, and the first in Africa, to legalize same-sex marriage under the Civil Union Act.

Laws pertaining to equality are constantly challenged and changed in accordance with the constitution, however completed equality is yet to be achieved as a lot of violence against LGBTI people continues. [2007]10

Alicia Renew – Manager of the Faculty Gallery, Charlotte Lamont —Honours Student (Theory of Art and Design) and gallery intern.