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Art, Reality

Return of the Censors

by Sean O'Toole / 04.03.2010

The Times has this week been reporting on the fall-out after Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana’s left a Johannesburg art exhibition in a huff because it included a series of photos of lesbian couples that she considered “pornographic”. The photographs are by Umlazi-born Zanele Muholi, a self-described “activist-photographer” who last year was awarded a Fanny Anne Eddy accolade by the International Resource Network in Africa and won of the Casa Africa Award at the 2009 Bamako Encounters photography biennial in Mali. Not that these recent plaudits impressed the minister. It was left to Xingwana’s spokeswoman, Lisa Combrinck, to do the usual ventriloquist routine: “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this.”

This is not the first time Muholi’s work has provoked outrage.

In December 2005 I interviewed the photographer at Constitution Hill, host venue for the Innovative Women exhibition that so disgruntled our arts minister. Muholi, a former hairstylist, factory labourer and receptionist who moved to Joburg in the late 1990s to pursue her creative ambitions, told me about an incident at the Gender and Visuality Conference, held at the University of the Western Cape in 2004. A member of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, a Johannesburg-based support organisation for black lesbians, Muholi has long used her camera to document the grim realities facing black lesbians, most extreme amongst them being the phenomenon of curative rape.

Zanele Muholi, Dada, 2003, silver gelatin print, 485 x 300mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

Zanele Muholi, Dada, 2003, silver gelatin print, 485 x 300mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

“I realised how uncomfortable people can become around my photography,” she said. “The exhibition created such a stir to the extent that people quoted some scriptures from the bible to me. I have a pack [of documents] where people said a lot of things – people were angry. Other people said I mustn’t portray black women like that and why don’t I capture white people. I thought it was a great thing. I took my video camera with, and it helped inform me about my next project. I then did a film based on my work as a photographer and all the negative response.”

I asked Muholi, whose early ambition was film – she completed a web and graphic design diploma in 1999 before enrolling at the Market Photo Workshop in 2001 – if such extreme criticism didn’t hurt in any way.

“It didn’t really hurt because I am so used to criticism. It is what improved me as an individual. It actually made me excited. ‘Wow, yes, people are engaging. They are not passive.’ I couldn’t just leave. Dealing with lesbian rape, with photography depicting it, it can make you scared – but to get hurt doesn’t bother me.”

Zanele Muholi, Untitled, 2006, Lambda print, 375 x 500mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

Zanele Muholi, Untitled, 2006, Lambda print, 375 x 500mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

A couple months later, in March 2006, I caught up with Muholi again, this time at News Café in Braamfontein. She had just returned from the 6th World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, where she presented a paper on hate crimes and South Africa’s struggle with homophobia. Our conversation turned to a photo she made on Durban beach in January. The photo shows two legs standing in the silhouette of inflated condoms. Didn’t people hassle you? I asked. Her model was naked.

“I didn’t care about them. I knew I wanted to take a certain picture and I was getting frustrated because I was coming back to Joburg… I wanted to articulate the lack of safe sex in our relationships. I have friends who are HIV positive or are still coming out and we still don’t have better methods [of contraception].”

Our conversation looped back to the issue of public censure.

“I have been sworn at,” she said, “I have been criticised by some lesbians for showing an image of a woman wearing a dildo. They say, ‘You can’t show people what we do.’ For me… this is me now. No-one can stop me from doing something that I believe in.” A feisty, tenacious personality, Muholi added: “I am not scared, I am not scared.” Twice. “I cannot say I am living to shock people. I am living to expose, obviously, and also to educate. Sales, or no sales, it doesn’t matter to me – it has to be done. It has to be done.”

Zanele Muholi, Bra, 2003, silver gelatin print, 275 x 275mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

Zanele Muholi, Bra, 2003, silver gelatin print, 275 x 275mm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

*Opening image credit: Zanele Muholi, Apinda Mpako and Ayanda Magudulela, Parktown, Johannesburg 2007, silver gelatin print, 76.5 x 76.5cm. Courtesy artist and Michael Stevenson

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