Faces and Phases by Zanele Muholi

In her second installation Faces and Phases, due out in August 2010, Zanele Muholi  who is known for  straying  from the conservative and the conventional to get  her point across, lives up to her name.   Passion meets purpose in this body of black and white portraits.  She aspires is to see black queers – a section of society that includes gay and transgendered peoples – receive the same recognition and basic human rights, in what she deems a heterosexual society.  Her purpose is fulfilled by her use of her visual activism — to give a voice and put a face to the plight faced by black queers, especially black lesbians.

In 1996, South Africa’s Constitution made it illegal to discriminate against any citizen, based on sexual orientation.  This effort means that South Africa has  a healthy number of individuals who are out and living their most authentic lives.  This is true for some but not for the queers in the predominantly black townships.  The constitution does not seem to cover them because according to Muholi “ we experience rape from gangs, raped by so called friends, neighbours and sometimes even family members”, (pg  6)oft times with no recourse from the justice system.  She decries the lack of police involvement when such cases are reported.   The townships have been plagued by ‘curative rapes’ because some men have taken it upon themselves to ‘teach’ lesbians the ‘African way’ of life.  A bulk of black society has not accepted that there are people who are genetically ‘different’.

Muholi’s black and white portraits depict the presence of the black queers in our midst.  Their existence is undeniable.  Muholi has worked with a sampling of women who have allowed her into their lives, to speak of the phases that they go through, should they be coming out, transitioning, dealing with different violations, disease, joy, pain, etc.  She has shown these women in their different capacities as citizen as well as professionals but most importantly she has shown these women in a positive light.  Anyone who is familiar with Muholi’s work knows that her ultimate purpose is to catalogue the history of the black queers as seen and told by a black person.  That for her means not exploiting those who graciously let her in.

It is easy to take Muholi’s work for granted but I, as an African, appreciate the dialogue she has stirred in African circles although it is still a polarizing issue.  It is an issue that can both be dangerous and liberating at the same time.  Clear instances of resistances that come to mind are the Malawian and the Ugandan cases.  The issues would rather be swept under the rug and not dealt or be perceived as some sort of anomaly.  She is challenging that culture of silence/disapproval with this body of work..  In essence she is saying, if you do not acknowledge us, then how can you know of the diseases that afflict us, the violations that we suffer and the injustices that we suffer.  This is not a stretch because South Africa still does not have anti hate crimes law despite making headway with the equality legislation.

Muholi’s work is still very cutting edge in Africa and in the world as she continues to bring her matter-of —fact-work.  In her first publication Zanele Muholi: Only Half The Picture, she commanded our attention by invoking us to think about blackness, the female form and it’s intertwined sexualities.  This time she is bringing the faces of these black female forms, almost as if to say we have faces and go we through phases in life just like anyone else, albeit in a burdensome manner.  She is not asking for lofty dreams but is stating that black queers need to live in a homophobic/xenophobic free world where their visibility must be acknowledged.  As evidenced by varied subjects in her book, Muholi has covered three continents and found a common bond amongst the black queers.  They still face queerphobia and xenophobia, be they be in Cape Town or Toronto.  My one suggestion to the author would be that, a bit more of a narrative with each image would go a long way.  It would afford us the opportunity to reimagine the LGBTI community. It would be interesting to know what these beings have encountered during the different phases of their lives.  I know she does not want to exploit them but it may add a certain richness to the book.  Other than that, this should be essential reading/viewing for most of us because we are all comfortable with what we do not know or choose not to know.  What will we as Africans do?  Shall we continue to deny the existence of these members of our society?  If we claim to be human rights upholders then we should observe everyone’s right to be who they are.

Zanele Muholi

Faces and Phases. Zanele Muholi. Germany:Prestel, August 2010