Zanele Muholi: Mo(u)rning
12 January - 2 February 2012 
Walker Street Gallery & Art Centre, Dandenong
Presented as part of Midsumma Festival 2012

Mo(u)rning is an antithesis of definitions, calling forth two opposing thoughts. Morning presents a new beginning, a new day and the possibility of a positive future; mourning, meanwhile, presents grief, lament and sorrow for those passed. This duality is exactly what the exhibition conveys – Mo(u)rning presents a loving community facing violence and heartache simply for being themselves. The union of definitions is a constant within Zanele Muholi’s practice as she documents a visual history of the black lesbian women in South Africa. Her practice challenges prejudice by changing social understandings of her community. 

The opposing elements of Mo(u)rning have been divided between the two rooms. In a general sense, downstairs focuses on the love and strength of these women, whilst upstairs presents the trauma and fear with which they must live their lives. 

Beginning with downstairs, on one wall is a selection of works from the ongoing series Faces & Phases. This is a series of silver gelatin portraits that show the varied but united face of black lesbian women. 

Discussing the title of this series, Faces can be seen as an expression of the individual, the face commonly recognised as an expression of individuality and the self. Faces also refers to the face-to-face confrontation between Muholi as photographer and the women she photographs. It becomes an expression in which a moment is captured between the two. 

This expression of a moment captured can also be understood through the term Phases. Phases signifies the represented moment, but also the transitions between gender stereotypes and the many varied expressions and experiences of gender and sexuality. 

Muholi also discusses Phases as an articulation of collective pain due to the hate crimes happening within her community. Some of the women in this series have in fact been killed or have passed away. They are here fondly remembered. Faces & Phases presents the beauty of these individual women, but also the beauty of a connected community. 

The expression of intimacy is continued on the wall facing. Containing black and white photographs of two different couples, bodies intertwined, these are more recent works. These photographs capture moments of love and tenderness, of women deeply connected. 

Moments of intimacy are also apparent in Muholi’s documentary, Difficult Love. This documentary is an insight into Muholi as photographer, as herself a black lesbian, as a daughter, as a lover, as an active community member. As the title suggests, however, Difficult Love is not just an expression of intimacy and positive community; it is also a reflection on the prejudices these women face. 

Muholi’s documentation of prejudice includes an interview with Millicent Gaika. Millicent’s face is horribly disfigured due to beating, the interview taking place just days after she was attacked and raped. Her testimonial interview shows the harsh reality of torment these women face, but also the strength with which they live their lives. Still physically and mentally scarred from the attack, Millicent is able to speak about the horrific events. Revealing the harsh reality of her attack, Millicent helps prevent the continuation of such acts against women like her, of which there are far too many. 

Testimonials by these women who have suffered from such violence appear in the gallery upstairs. These testimonials include statements by women who have suffered from ‘curative’ or ‘corrective’ rape, an act based on the idea that once lesbian women know the touch of a man they will be ‘cured’ of their sexual perversion. ‘Curative’ rape is born from prejudice that assumes a form of compulsory heterosexuality. It is this prejudice and mentality that Muholi challenges throughout her practice. As she asks in Difficult Love, “why do I have to be killed because of loving someone?” This is a question she shouldn’t have to ask - no person should have to endure fear of murder or attack based on her or his sexuality or identity. 

By capturing these women’s lives – both the beautiful and the brutal moments – Muholi is creating a voice for a community that needs to be heard and known. To further emphasise how powerful a voice can be, in April this year Muholi’s Cape Town apartment was broken into, photographs, documentations and testimonials stolen. It was a robbery that aimed to silence. 

Muholi’s practice is a voice for her community and should be allowed to continue and grow. As it becomes larger and stronger this voice will change, it will represent more than the one community with which it began. Her practice can be seen as a challenge to all prejudice, as an intimate expression of the individual and the power of communal identity. As an expression of love, Muholi’s photographs show the power of a united community and become an image of the loving society we can become. These are images that challenge prejudice in an act of positive social change.