We Live in Fear
Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi works as a human / lesbian rights activist with members in LGBTI community, raising the many issues facing black lesbian women living in South Africa. In 2002, she co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization based in Gauteng, dedicated to provide a safe space for women loving women to meet and organize.

"My work is a visual exploration of making/mapping/preserving radical black lesbian and queer (LGBTI : lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) visual history in post-Apartheid South Africa. I explore how visual activism can be employed by socially, culturally, politically and economically marginalized individuals to create sites of resistance as well as to develop a critical gaze from our own perspective."

‘Remember me when I’m gone …’ Busi Sigasa

When I started capturing Faces and Phases eight years ago, I did not anticipate that the project would involve much more than documenting my community. The first person I photographed for the series was Busi Sigasa (1982-2007), whose photograph was taken at the old Women’s Gaol at Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, in 2006. She was my friend and colleague. She was a poet, an activist and a survivor of the hate crime of ‘curative rape’. Eight months later, in March 2007, she died at the age of 25. Confronted by the realities of loss and pain, I began a long journey of photographing black and white portraits of the mostly black lesbians and trans men around me.

What was initially a visual project became the creation of an unprecedented archive of photographs for my community and our country. I wanted to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even 10 years after the fall of apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence. However, as I began to photograph friends, comrades, neighbours, the lovers of lovers, I became curious. I asked questions and looked into the eyes of black lesbian mothers, sisters, daughters and sons, wives and husbands. I was invited into their lives and I learned of their individual joys, hopes, longings, scars, suffering and endless love.

Faces and Phases was thus born and grew year after year from a process of my own struggling with and processing what I was privileged to hear and capture, as often torn apart by the courageous stories shared with me as built up by them.

Faces and Phases is both highly personal and deeply political to me: an act of searching, resisting, transgressing the boundaries of oppressive racial, sexual, class and gender power structures.

Personally, I do not have a documented family tree, and sadly I do not have photographs of my maternal and paternal grandparents. Although this erasure was deliberate and is true for many black families across the globe, this commonality does not negate my feelings of longing, of incompleteness, believing that if I could know their faces, a part of me would not feel so empty.

In each photograph that I take, there is a longing and looking for ‘me’. I am capturing the black, beautiful portrait of my young self.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, many African countries were still fighting for their independence from European colonialism, and black nationalism was at an all-time high. While Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia were slowly winning independence, South Africa’s fight for freedom against racialised oppression was quashed with brutal force by the apartheid state.

It is so unfortunate that, in most of those countries that gained independence before South Africa, homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia and lesbophobia are deeply entrenched, with African leaders criminalising homosexuality and publicly projecting hate speech.

Those decades were times of high alert, as wars and violence and killings spread throughout my country and my township of Umlazi; brutality in different forms pervaded every media image I was exposed to.

Parallel to these political wars, another kind of war was being waged, an internal war against our own black, African beauty. Africans were bombarded with commercial images peddling the use of skin bleaching creams that promised to lighten and brighten our complexions, give us a sense of self-worth and satisfy a longing to be less African even as we fought against white oppression.

I remember that many of us conformed and bleached and put our health at risk, even as we resisted and fought against racial hierarchy. And it felt like a two-edged sword because we also knew we were African women.

Bleaching is self-inflicted but it is society that sometimes deliberately erases one’s race or skin colour due to prejudice. The same thing applies when a lesbian’s sexuality disrupts the homophobe’s space. The results of both encounters can leave permanent scars.

Our current struggle, as we commemorate 20 years of democracy in South Africa, is that black lesbian women and trans men continue to suffer ‘curative rapes’ and the brutal murders of our lovers and friends. Looking back now and comparing our current struggle for our rights to exist not just legally but visually in our families and communities, in our nation, I can see that resistance is never a linear process. Often even before the organising starts, merely existing and living is the ultimate beginning of political consciousness, an act of resistance and transgression.

As black lesbian women and gay men today we are resisting homophobia, queerphobia and transphobia simply by living our lives. We put ourselves at risk in the townships by coming out and being seen, but we refuse to deny our own beauty and existence.

My photography is a therapy to me. I want to project publicly, without shame, that we are bold, black, beautiful/handsome, proud individuals. It heals me to know that I am paving the way for others who, in wanting to come out, are able to look at the photographs, read the biographies and understand that they are not alone. That is an elixir for me.

Isilumo siyaluma is a Zulu expression that can be loosely translated as “period pains/periods pain”. Additionally, there is an added meaning in the translation that there is something secretive in and about this blood/“period in time.”

At one level, my project deals with my own menstrual blood, with that secretive, feminine time of the month that has been reduced within Western patriarchal culture as dirty.

On a deeper level then, my menstrual blood is used as a vehicle and medium to begin to express and bridge the pain and loss I feel as I hear and become witness to the pain of ‘curative rapes’ that many of the girls and women in my black lesbian community bleed from their vaginas and their minds.

Thokoza, 2013. Rape and Murder

Kuruman, 2012. Murder

Hammaskraal, 2014. Murder

Ventersdorp,2014. Rape and Murder

Case 216/02/2006, 2011. Murder

Between March 2011 and December 2014, 23 young black lesbians, gay men and trans person aged between 19 and 36 were brutally murdered in various townships.

As we continue to live and survive in troubled times as black lesbians in South Africa and within the continent, where rampant hate crimes and brutal killings of same gender loving women is rife. This ongoing project is an activist/artist’s radical response to that violence.

The passage in which we bleed
The passage where we are/ were born
The passage through which we become (wo)men?
The erotic passage meant to be aroused, is raped
The passage we love is hated and called names
The sacred passage is ever persecuted

I continue to bleed each time I read about rampant curative rapes in my ‘democratic’ South Africa. I bleed every time queer bodies are violated and refused citizenship due gender expression and sexual orientation within the African continent. I constantly bleed when I hear about brutal murders of black lesbians in our townships and surrounding areas. I’m scarred and scared as I don’t know whose body will be next to be buried. I bleed because our human rights are ripped. I cry and bleed as mothers, lovers, friends, relatives lose their beloved ones, let alone the children that become orphans because of trans/queerphobic violence. We bleed, our life cycles invaded, we bleed against the will of our bodies and beings.

Each patterned piece in this series represents a ‘curative rape’ survivor or a victim of hate crime, the physical and spiritual blood that is shed from our bodies.



Installation shots

Busi Sigasa, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2006
Audrey Mary Harare Zimbabwe 2011
360 Ayanda Magoloza Kwanele South Katlehong Johannesburg 2012
Stesh Gonya Parktown Johannesburg 2013
Liza Mokae Duduza Johannesburg 2013
Gazi T Zuma Umlazi Durban 2010
500dpi Kekeletso Khena Green Market Square Cape Town 2012
Manucha Muizenberg Cape Town 2010
Charmain Carrol Parktown Johannesburg 2013
500 zanele_muholi-we_live_in_fear-installation-fotogallery_vasli_souza-2_600
A2 witnesses
A2 mask
A2 drops
A2 badge
A2 lilies

Fotogalleri Vasli Souza
Damplassen 21
0852, Oslo

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