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Return of the Censors

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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  1. more like it says:

    One of Art’s most valuable functions in society – to expose our double-standards and our hypocrisy, to challenge how we think about the way we think, to remind us of just how uncomfortably fluid our notion of “standards” and “values” actually is. Inspiring and powerful work – thanks for giving it the attention it deserves.

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  2. cheerful pessimist says:

    Sean? what are you saying here? nice pictures by the way, the story however is a footnote for The Times article, maybe paste a link at the bottom.

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  3. arnaud says:

    a white dildo on a black lesbian, it HAS to be ART !

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  4. Rettambuli says:

    Keep doing what you do Miss Muholi!

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  5. Sean says:

    @ cheerful pessimist: i guess all i wanted to do was highlight that zanele is no stranger to controversy and that the minister is not the first to burp in disgust. so yup, it is a footnote more than a qualified insight. but i kinda like to think that the artist – zanele here – should be quoted at length, and not some poncy specialist. if you look at the two times pieces, zanele is only fleetingly given air time. this is not to diss the journo, who did a fine job spotting this ripple. i just thought it would be cool to allow zanele’s words, which never saw the light of day back in 2006/2006, give context to the debate. nothing more.

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  6. danni says:

    Big ups to Muholi. Great work.

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  7. Terry says:

    What we should be asking is why it took so long before those affected by Minister Lulu’s bigotry to speak out. Was it for fear that handouts would stop? In any event, they have to a large extent. That’s what happens when bigots are given their way, so perhaps we should not only denouce Xingwana and her bigotry, but also the gutlessness of that section of the arts fraternity that decided to remain silent until now.

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  8. mehita says:

    great article Sean! So much freedom still to fight for in ZA. I love Muholi’s work; her courage is inspiring and her images beautiful.

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  9. Phalafala says:

    Would love to lock the minister in a room with the lady with that big white dildo… you always fear what you might actually want, but won’t dare to admit it…

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  10. Terry says:

    before they spoke out. I really should read through before submitting. But the point remains valid. And I agree with Mehita

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  11. P says:

    Very worrying that the minister thinks it’s her right or role to steer artists expression.

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  12. cawyn says:

    You are an inspiration to those that understand your art!
    Keep going … You are making a difference that so many have feared / failed to do!!!


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  13. Alibaba says:

    Thanks to Lulu I’ve now seen the pictures. Great work.

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  14. […] I read a great interview with Muholi which was published by online mag Mahala called ‘Return of the Censors’ in which she commented when asked about her work saying: “Dealing with lesbian rape, with […]

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  15. arnaud says:

    “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation-building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.” (Min. Xinwala)
    Does the minister have enough integrity to engage JZ in the same manner over his stance on AIDS, lust children ? In fact just about anything the ANC does nowadays seems to be immoral, offensive and against nationbuilding. Ministers with integrity: resign!
    Which does not neccesarily mean that I agree the fotos are ART.
    One photography shows a woman putting on a dildo….for whom, the viewer, the photographers own lusting, to liberate, educate, enlighten me? What please makes this disgusting snapshot of peoples sexual preference ART ? Is it the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol predicted? has money changed hands or is it the modern art formula: provoke a big stinking scandal that puts the public opinion on the back foot, in order to then justify your position as righteous, hallowed, untouchable because its stems from a suffering minority, all of course within some whishi whashi illdefined concept of ’art’.
    I resent this abuse of art that adds no value except for hyping up the ‘artist’ (activist), whose cause in this case are gender issues and the abuse of samesex minorities .
    I would not want children to be confronted with that particularily distasteful picture, that is my simple guideline to art, the rest of the pictures are just boring softporn. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Some good, most bad.
    Why is it that child pornography is not also ART? That is a rhethorical question.

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  16. Roger Young says:

    here’s the thing arnaud, I’d probably find your sexual preferences disgusting but I’d never say you weren’t entitled to speak about them. If you judge good art by your children’s standards you must watch a lot of Cartoon Network.

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  17. Moose says:

    Great images. Strong woman. Keep going. Funny how the previously oppressed seem fated to find to reasons to be the bigotted oppressor.

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  18. Tara says:

    hey Arnaud.
    art is an exploration of the self intimately and socially. Muholi is searching through different layers of truth and getting at her own. thats beautiful for a lot of people, not just those that share the same preferences.
    I dont really think the audience here is children and i doubt it will ever become. any person with a sense of self knows that even when pushing boundaries, children are exempt and must be a awarded their sanctities..
    dont take your kid to her exhibition.

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  19. Betty says:

    more pics please mum

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  20. arnaud says:

    hey Tara and Roger, please read again to find out that I dont have any children. I never watch Cartoon Network, I prefer a good exhibition that enriches me. I use the child as yardstick (and think of my nieces,) because I believe naively in a sense of morality that is embedded in humans. A sense of right and wrong. I use the child as yardstick for choosing what we should allow in the public domain, for making an ethical choice about what we allow in our public spaces. . Yes Tara, art is about self exploration, the inner and outer self so to speak. But it is also about transformation of matter into meaning, and that is where the problem lies with photography as captured reality. I have no problem with nude photography The words ‘children must be awarded their sanctities’ sums it up beautifully.
    The real irony and hollowness around this whole hype is that its not a current exhibition any of us can go and see,, but something that happened last year. Which I think proves the point that this matter is politics, not art.

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  21. brandon edmonds says:

    Using children as a yardstick for anything besides judging the effectiveness of a clown at a birthday party is idiotic. Using children as a yardstick for ‘what we should allow in the public domain’ is terrifying. It suggests a Lord of the Flies type kid-ocracy where complex questions are settled with a stick (not all that far from American geopolitical hegemony come to think of it). There’s a brilliant recurring South Park joke whenever a crowd gathers someone always yells hysterically “What about the children?’. It’s sloppy opportunism to foist children into the moral fray. Stop it. Muholi is a ‘visual activist’ first and foremost. Her art is inherently political.

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  22. arnaud says:

    @ brandon. Point taken. Visual activist is a good description. I like it.. I however don’t subscribe to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenario. That is a horrorscenario of children acting as their peers do. I concur rather with Henry Miller who believed that if children (innocent and unspoilt they come into the world) were to rule, the world would be a better place. This may be Naive, but I prefer being naive to anything goes. You see, Henry Miller cleaned out puritanism in literature for good, but despite that was never immoral. I suggest you read the ‘Paradise Lost ‘ chapter in ‘Big Sur abd the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch’.
    It is reckless and irresponsible NOT to think of children, they are after all the most vulnerable in society, I think of children as equals and treat them as such . Think of them as small adults and us as their Guardians. A child does not know what sex is , at the onset of puberty things change. From then on they can do what they like, have babies at 14 years of age, catch the virus and enjoy all the freedom they wish for.

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  23. now is everything says:

    Well, if we’re really concerned about the plight of our children, it’s unlikely that a few lesbians with strap-on accessories are going to change society (and morality for those who are so obsessed with theis concept) as we know it. If I were a parent I’d be far more concerned about basic needs like food, shelter, political stability – all of which are under greater threat from climate change than the sexual preferences of a small minority
    Arnaud, if you want to channel your concern more effectively I suggest that you focus on your neighbours who ferry their kids to school in monsterous 4X4’s and waste precious electricity simply because they can afford to. This isn’t easy because they have been raised to think that this is perfectly normal and justified, just as you have grown up with a firm idea of what is morally acceptable for everyone.
    The reality is that throughout history Art has always transcended what any society has considered morally appropriate. At its best Art has shown the way to new thinking when moral crises have presented themselves – just as climate change will shortly challenge the values that everyone has considered appropriate thus far.
    Your objections are based more on a personal discomfort with the lifestyle choices that others have made and the willingness of an artist to share this with humanity in a way that amplifies ambiguity and compassion. It’s time to accept that the art of others will often transcend your personal parameters and that they have just as much right to disseminate this as you have to advocate your notion of morality.

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  24. Thinker says:

    @ arnaud – to take one small statement as an example, but without you realising that you actually conceptualised a deep truth by saying: “a white dildo on a black lesbian, it HAS to be ART !”…. that on its own is a powerful image, if you really want to unpack it. Exactly some of the struggles of black lesbians, there is not readily black skin colour dildos available, as accessible and frequent (if at all) than white skinned dildos.

    Second point on the same sentence – if you look beyond the “porn” rethoric… another way to start analysing the message in that image: black women, black lesbians, black bodies have a her/history in this country of being ruled and policed [and raped] by white dicks (patriarches, privilleged white [men] and oppressors…)

    Rather try to think of the layers of messages in this image.

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  25. arnaud says:

    OH thank you @Everything is said, ju speak from my heart. The monstrosity of 4 x 4 and depravity of nouveau riche diamonds of whatever sparkle ,colouring the FOEFIE 20010 landscape ….! prescribing morals, the one ………and the other… and HIM !
    makes me sometimes just a little bit to much of that little bit angry in an overpowering sense. experiencing the primal essence of anger which sociology, psychology, psychiatrics, pills etc could not cure. I hate them. all. as I hate myself. Protestant power , goes all the way back to Nietsche, will to power. I believe myself as chaos within chaos. (Benjamin)Yes ,and despite , I paint those imaginations of horror and everyday of a life to be. thats been…? I am familiar with “exploring the parameters” as slang will have it. @Thinker. Thank yu too. an incredibbly powerful picture I needed unpacked. Yes, I got myself thinking intensevly in this Blog Dialogue. And I want to congratulate the photographer for her chutzpe to unleash this. Respect Zanehle Muholi Zanehle.! Iif you are with the lion and Daniel in the den, is it wise to step on the lions tail? and when yu do it, yu should know what yu are doing, Bless all

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  26. Marcel says:

    An open end debate by the looks of things,my queries are as follows, is the minister of arts and culure a artist or just another self inriching politician. Number 2 who is to say what art and what is not art, ignorant politicians? and just a personal requesite more, more, by that i mean a more liberal ,educated south africa for our future generation.
    Lets free homosexuals and let us not fear for fear will get us on the same frequency as Uganda.

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  27. Theuns Kruger says:

    Two things:

    1) The fact that Zanele Muholi’s exhibition drew such a wide-ranging response – especially Lulu Xingwana’s response – again shows that art by definition is meant to evoke a response, and that it has, in this instance, succeeded beyond all expectations. Well done Zanele!

    2) The fact that Lulu Xingwana – our esteemed Minister for Arts & Culture – is a prejudiced bigot and homophobe speaks again about the government’s inability to appoint the right people for the job. Maybe she was just another politician ‘rewarded’ for past loyalties, and not for her interests, qualifications or skills set. Lulu also completely misses the message that the exhibition was meant to convey. May a course in art appreciation can be offered to enlighten and educate the esteemed Minister…

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  28. Anonymous says:

    i don’t understand why with every group of ministers, art has to get the most obnoxious, propaganda pushing donkey who has no clue about art or at least willing to open up their minds to it. zanele’s work is phenomenal by the way.

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  29. garrygarner says:

    would you like to fuck my behind

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