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Central New York

September 28, 2009

Faces & Phases (2006 - 2009): A Selection of Works

Sept. 28 - Nov. 1, 2009

by Zanele Muholi, activist and visual artist, South Africa

The exhibit is in connection with the IRN-African 2009 Meeting (Genders & Sexualities in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges in the 21st Century) hosted by Empire State College, Central New York Center, Sept. 30 - Oct.3, 2009.

Images are on loan from The Michael Stevenson Gallery.

black and white photo of Nomonde Mbusi

Nomonde Mbusi

black and white photo of Busi Sigasa

Busi Sigasa

There is a meaning or interplay to Faces & Phases and why the project focuses on these two words.

I decided to capture images of my community in order to contribute towards a more democratic and representative South African homosexual history. Up until 1994, we as black lesbians were excluded from participating in the creation of a formal queer movement and our voices were missing from the pages of gay publications, while white gay activists directed the movement and wrote about gay issues and struggles. Hence, few of us were present in the forefront, but many operated underground.

I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black lesbian visibility, to showcase our existence and resistance in our democratic society, to present a positive imagery of black lesbians.

Aside from the dictionary definition of what a 'face' is (the front of the head, from forehead to chin), the face also expresses the person. For me,Faces means me, photographer and community worker, being face to face with the many lesbians I interacted with from different Gauteng townships such as Alexandra, Soweto, Vosloorus, Katlehong, Kagiso...

In each township there are lesbians living openly regardless of the stigma and homophobia attached to their lesbian identity, both butch and femme. Most of the time being lesbian is seen as negative, as destroying the nuclear heterosexual family; for many black lesbians, the stigma of queer identity arises from the fact that homosexuality is seen as un-African. Expectations are that African women must have children and procreate with a male partner, the head of the family. That is part of the 'African tradition.'

Failing to conform to these expectations, we are perceived as deviants, needing a 'curative rape' to erase our male attitude and make us into true women, females, real women, mothers, men's property.

Individuals in this series of photographs hold different positions and play many different roles within the black lesbian community: soccer player, actress, scholar, cultural activist, lawyer, dancer, film maker, human rights/gender activist. However, each time we are represented by outsiders, we are merely seen as victims of rape and homophobia. Our lives are always sensationalized, rarely understood. This is the reason for Phases: our lives are not just what makes the newspapers headlines every time one of us is attacked. We go through many stages, we express many identities, which unfold in parallel in our existence.

From an insider's perspective, this project is meant as a commemoration and a celebration of the lives of black lesbians that I met in my journeys through the townships. Lives and narratives are told with both pain and joy, as some of these women were going through hardships in their lives. Their stories caused me sleepless nights as I did not know how to deal with the urgent needs I was told about. Many of them had been violated; I did not want the camera to be a further violation; rather, I wanted to establish relationships with them based on our mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black in South Africa today.

I call this method the birth of visual activism: I decided to use it to mark our resistance and existence as black lesbians in our country, because it is important to put a face on each and every issue.

Faces & Phases is about our histories, struggles and lives on this queer mother planet: we will face our experiences regardless what they'll be, and we still move on.