Gone @ 20 – the lucky ones are not yet born!

A review of Zanele Muholi’s exhibition MO(U)RNING by Zethu Matebeni, 2012

MuhioliCS

Famous people die in their twenties. Many would remember the American Rhythm &Blues (R&B) singer, xxxxxx, who died in a plane crash. She was 22 at the time of her death. Controversial supermodel Gia died at the age of 26. Some still don’t believe that Tupac Shakur is dead. He was 25 when they gunned him down. The legendary Amy Winehouse died at 27. It is believed that she wanted to join the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other musicians who died at the same age. They are now immortal members of the infamous “Club 27”.

We remember all these people because they were famous. No one remembers Nokuthula Radebe (20), Ntsiki Tyatyeka (21), Thokozane Qwabe (23), Khanyiswa Hani (25), Tshuku Ncobo (26), Mpho Setshedi (27), Sanna Supa (28), Hendrietta Thapelo Morifi (29), and many others like them. They did not make it to “Club 27”. They were not musicians, artists or entertainers. However, they joined a special club, notorious in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (lgbti) community of South Africa. They are among the endless list of lives lost too soon, and too violently. Murdered for who they are and their sexual/gender expression — they lie forgotten.

South Africa is layered with contradictions and complexities. On the one hand, the lgbti community forms part of the progressive movement and the rainbow nation that is South Africa today. On the other, individual rights to sexual expression, sexual and gender identity are often challenged in the only African state that is praised for protecting diversities. However, there are limits to diversity, at least in the South African context. Those who transgress the boundaries of diversity often get punished in the most gruesome ways. In particular, the existence of minority groups (including women and female persons) is often under threat. Among South African black lesbian women specifically, one is considered lucky to escape rape, or even murder before their 30th birthday.

We live within a state of perpetual loss. It is a painful sense of losing youthfulness, hope and a future. The feeling almost makes you numb to the experience of life. Life’s ending becomes an everyday occurrence, synonymous to breathing. It blinds you of possibilities and opportunities. You walk, sleep, drive, and mostly gamble with its imminence. It follows you. You calculate the chances of it approaching you violently. You respond by minimising the risks. Your movements change to dodge its strike. Then it hits you, unexpectedly. In most times you are all alone. No one is there to hear your cries. Even when someone is there, it will soon befall him or her. She or he cannot respond because of fear of it happening to them.

Such was the fate of Zoliswa Nkonyane. She was barely 20 when her peers murdered her in a township in Cape Town. A group of boys and some girls stoned her to death. Her father stood by watching from a distance, not knowing that it was his daughter being murdered. He feared that the same group would come after him if he intervened. Among the group stoning her, no one cried ‘stop’. Even the lone passerby who tried to end the violence, knew it would turn to him. The nine men arrested for her murder were from her township. They killed her because she was a tomboy and a lesbian. They said she “wanted to get raped”.

The murderer of Phumeza Nkolonzi followed her into her family home. Inside the bedroom, with her aged grandmother and five-year-old cousin watching, he shot her three times. The first shot, as the grandmother stated was “to silence” them. He was informing them of his intention. The second shot went directly to Phumeza. She asked him “what have I done to you?” The murderer responded with a third shot that sent her to the ground. The neighbours heard her grandmother’s screams, but were too scared to go out of their homes and help. Known to everyone in the community as a humble and respectful tomboy whose best friends were all boys her age, Phumeza died two years after her 20th birthday.

Who would remember Zoliswa, Phumeza and the many like them? They were not famous. Their names would not ring a bell worldwide. No one would ever sing their songs. No one would hold tight to their sold out albums. No one would name their children after them. No one would want to join their club. Yet, many do. The list keeps growing. And some of us do remember them. We want to remember them. Their memories cannot be forgotten because we know, like them, we could be next. For the choices we make, the life we want to live, and the love we want to express — we all do not escape the violence that claims to make us “right”.

EPOC activists, Bontle and Ntsupe at the crime scene where Noxolo Nogwaza’s body was discovered in 2011

 

It is in this state of mind that I, and many others, entered an exhibition space about Mo(u)rning. The title spoke directly to many lgbt persons who are currently in mourning. We mourn the loss of many young lives over the years, violently murdered or raped by members of our South African society. Between June 2nd and July 15th 2012 alone, we have buried and mourned at least seven members of our community, brutally murdered by perpetrators who still roam our streets. Many lgbt activists have gone from town to town, funeral to funeral and province to province, attending to the burials of Neil Daniels, Vuyisa Dayisi, Sasha Lee, Thapelo Makhutle, Hendrietta Thapelo Morifi, Phumeza Nkolonzi and Sanna Supa.

We walked around carrying this loss, the pain and fear that if not us, then one of us would be next. Many of us shared this feeling as we walked into the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. We had all come to support and celebrate the work of Zanele Muholi, a fearless visual activist whose work is dedicated to documenting the realities of the lgbti community in South Africa and beyond. With her, we were mo(u)rning the loss of her visual archive, stolen during a burglary at her house. It was in actual fact also our own loss — half a decade of documenting lgbti lives across Africa. We also came to mourn the lives of those we knew, those like us.

As we walked in to the white walls of the gallery, we were welcomed on the right hand by a beaded work of a newspaper headline. It was a heavy caption that told of the rampant violence and hate crimes towards lgbti persons. Muholi called it “queercide”. On its left, a timeline depicting all the lgbti persons murdered in South Africa brought a knot to one’s stomach. In front of it were two other beaded headlines of a lesbian raped and murdered, images from a crime scene, a memorial site and a gravesite. These sent me back to July 2007 and April 2008 at the funerals of couple Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, and soccer player Eudy Simelane respectively. These few images were the only ones left in Muholi’s depleted archive.

Walking to the right, a caption ‘mo(u)rning room’: please take off your shoes’ invitee the visitor in. I hesitated going into this room. A white thick curtain served as an entrance. The slightly deemed room made my heart sink. The mattress on the floor with a few blankets rolled on it seemed too familiar. Bereavement flowers, waiting chairs, a candle, grass wall hangings, a bucket with a face cloth, and a tv screen completed the installation. The latter played a video from Thapelo Makhutle’s recent funeral as well Ndibonile, a transcribed funeral of Noxolo Nogwaza. Both Thapelo and Noxolo died at age 24.

The room was a perfect portrayal of the way in which mourning resides within the spaces of the everyday. It is intimately connected with where one sleeps, eats, bathes or even entertains. It cannot be separated from these daily rituals. Looking at this room I was reminded of Phumeza’s grandmother curled up on the mattress. The walls were dark, and the signs of Phumeza’s bullet-sprayed blood splattered all over played like wild fire sparks in my head. A heart bit skipped as I imagined her grandmother continuing to inhabit this space every day. Outside the room a beaded program from a funeral service hung on the wall. Too emotionally drained to proceed with the exhibition, a table selling wine for R14 at the far end of the gallery looked more appealing.
A big white wall in the next room covered with hand-written texts, mostly extracts of testimonies of violation against black lesbians captured everyone’s attention. They were taken from various publications and interviews with lgbti community members who had survived different forms of violation and prejudice. On a small bench at the left end of the wall, two people listened to the audio recordings of some of the testimonies. Shaking their heads vigorously, they soaked in the painful stories. Parts of what they heard were female voices who were sharing their experiences. One woman told of how “They raped me, grabbed me, started hitting me…They raped me — three or two or all of them, I don’t remember. The rape changed my life. I got pregnant and my mother is raising my child”.

Facing this wall were black and white beautiful portraits of black lesbian and trans persons captured over six years. Many of these images were part of Muholi Faces and Phases as well as Being series. The people in the photographs faced the wall with all these testimonies, some claiming them, and others implicated by these texts. The women and trans men pose proud and elegantly in front of Zanele’s lens, owning their space and right to being. Some portraits were missing. This told of those who have since died. The space in between the photographs hurt. It reminded me of Buhle Msibi, Busi Sigasa, Eudy Simelane, Sizakele Sigasa, and many others we have forgotten.

Makhosazana Xaba’s poem, on the left wall, brought comfort. Her poem, For Eudy, called upon all, and challenged politicians in particular, to listen and respond to our cry “Stop these crimes of hatred now!” Back then, in 2009 when Xaba published the poem, politicians were quiet. They are still silent. Three years later we protested in front of their offices on July 18, 2012. They still refused to speak. They tiptoed around their comrades, Patekile Holomisa and his traditional cronies, who incite violence towards lgbti groups. Within the confines of parliament, the signs of democracy are under threat. Rather than defending democracy and speaking out against discrimination, prejudice and injustice, politicians chose to distance themselves from those opposing democratic gains.

Across the exhibition space were small photographs of women kissing and in intimate embraces. These images were surprising. The women were happy and even seemed in love. The juxtapositions in this space were jarring. In this one room I felt transported into that complex space where death|life, anger|joy and pain|pleasure co-exist. It was also between these four walls that I could exit (or enter the next space) from any end of the room. The gaps between the walls started to make me feel at ease. The wine also played its part.
Loud giggles emanated from the space behind one wall. I followed the sounds. I glanced over the note on the wall, “this video contains nudity and explicit sexual content”. A group of women stood excited in front of a flat screen tv. They watched two women having sex. The energy in the room was electric. Some couples started touching each other, others kissed, and many were glued to the screen. A mixture of shock, fascination and desire was pasted on their faces. Moans and groans were heard as we identified with what the couple on the screen felt. Those brave enough to last through the whole scene stayed for the evening’s ‘fix’. Others left, unable to contain the emotions the video aroused.

“Ooohh — that was hot!” Exclaimed one woman as she exited the room with her lover by her hand. Everyone came out of this room happy. They were smiling. Some had naughty smiles on their faces. Others tried hard to hide it, but it was there. The space allowed for it to be there. It even permitted a conversation around sexual pleasure. At this point, the feel of the exhibition changed. It was almost as if a burden had been lifted. The dark cloud that marked black female lives and bodies as only diseased, dying and violated receded. Out shone the possibility that beyond this framing a fuller life existed, one with imprints of pleasure and beauty.
Walking around this gallery brought a sense of pride. The beautifully captured images, videos, and beaded works of masculine and feminine females transposed politics of representation. Many black lesbians and transgender men suddenly occupied the space of the desired and the aesthetic. Outside these confines, they remain society’s targets as they are branded for challenging and destabilizing gender norms. On these walls, they were admired. Mo(u)rning offered a powerful space for the lgbti community to re-imagine themselves.
Death and loss are not escapable. But, as Mo(u)rning reminded us, even with these, there is life. And we can all claim our free space to live it. This has been one of the most difficult months of the South African lgbti community. It was in July 2007 when lesbian couple Sizakele and Salome’s brutal murder shocked the nation. We commemorated that loss this month, while also processing the numerous lgbt deaths over the six weeks between June and July 2012.

This exhibition reminded many of the lgbt persons present that we cannot afford to remain silent about the innocent lives takes so brutally. As a group, we have to continue shouting out against the injustices of our time. We must refuse to have a generation wiped out before 30. Mostly, we must refuse to be a community branded with violation. It is at such times and in such spaces that our activism is invigorated.

In Mo(u)rning Muholi delivered an exhibition that is not only rich in emotion, but works in ways that lifts the spirits of those it represents. This was evident in the ways the black lesbian audience broke out in song at the gallery, celebrating an archive that spoke of their realities. Mo(u)rning is a rich archive and thesis that re-shifts the ways in which the black lesbian and transgender community in South Africa can be viewed. It restores the dignity of a community continually violated. While we are in Mo(u)rning, we will not forget those of us who died, murdered for who they are. They may not have been famous. But, we will remember them for being true to themselves.

©Zethu Matebeni, 2012