Minister of arts and clueless

2010-03-06 00:00

Zanele Muholi, the Umlazi-born photographer whose exhibition ‘Being’ was branded “immoral” by Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana, has struck back, calling the minister’s homophobic comments “hate speech”. SHARON COOPER interviewed her via Skype in Australia, where she is on a scholarship, on art, lesbian identity and prejudice.

WHEN I call Zanele, it’s 4.25 pm in Melbourne and 7.25 am in Pietermaritzburg. I ask her where she has just returned from. She tells me Pennsylvania state in the U.S. where she was presenting at a symposium on Saartjie Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman infamously displayed in freak shows in 19th Century Europe.

WW: Why were you presenting at this symposium, and what was it about?

ZM: It’s basically a symposium of people who have written about Saartjie and how they perceive her … I made connections between Saartjie Baartman and black women’s identities. I wanted to make a connection between her being a black woman and my work.

WW: Talk to me about the minister walking out on your exhibit

ZM: My worry is that we all know what is going on in South Africa. Her comments perpetuate hate crimes. People take their guidance from leaders. It’s not about my exhibition. It’s about the black lesbians in townships being vulnerable. This woman was talking at Constitution Hill — the same environment in which the anti-hate crime campaign was originally launched — she has no clue who is occupying those premises. [The premises are currently occupied by For the Empowerment of Women, a black lesbian non-governmental organisation].

She didn’t ask questions about the true meaning of the images. Why are the images here? Who is behind the images? What is the intention? Why did you produce those images? Also the right of the curator in deciding on these images? It means that lesbians do exist in South Africa. A person who is looking at us from outside will think we are free — we are free as queer people in South Africa yet there is so much going on.

About a week ago, about 27 young kids were expelled [from a school hostel in KwaZulu-Natal] and had to point out other lesbians — and parents had to intervene. The kids were denied an education. There is already a high rate of unemployment for lesbians.

WW: Why do you think the minister is so scared?

ZM: It is quite a violent response. I think it is because of her own personal beliefs as a straight woman. Seeing two women in love is a threat to her — but I don’t know in what way since they’re not interfering with her. She was expressing her homophobic attitude in the wrong space. She’s forgetting that she fought for people’s freedom while she was in exile.

If we don’t have people like us in those departments, these things will be ongoing. All the departments in South Africa need to have “out” lesbians. Maybe the minister of arts and culture needs to be a lesbian for other lesbian [projects] to get funding — her attitude means they won’t get funding. We are trying to deal with the nonsense in Uganda [Uganda is debating a law that will make homosexuality punishable with long jail terms and even death].

WW: And your thoughts on President Jacob Zuma's contraversial comments in Durban?

ZM: Oh jehova — that is another delicate issue! The president himself [made] some homophobic statements. It won’t surprise me if the minister apologises, and life goes on without her being held accountable.

WW: What is your message for lesbians and parents?

ZM: Lesbians need support from their mothers. They might be evicted from homes because of such images. Mothers need to work together to fight hate crimes. If a lesbian is raped, a mother needs to fight this battle with us, and help the teachers in school. We need to fight this battle with mothers. This thing is getting out of hand. People must come out in all fields. If you are a soccer player, play well and come out.

WW: What do you say to people who say it is a white disease?

ZM: That’s madness. That’s why I’m writing history, because history was not written properly. They are stuck in anthropology. At least if it is written by our own people, then they will understand that it is not un-African.

We need to rewrite history to change that mindset. It is not a “white man’s disease”. That is rubbish.

It is us writing it now, we will inform the future. I’m not the only black lesbian artist in South Africa, there are a lot of us.

Zanele Muholi’s next exhibition is in Cape Town at the Michael Stevenson Gallery, starting April 22.


IN RESPONSE to the furore that erupted this week over her walkout, Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana yesterday issued a statement denying that her refusal to open the exhibition, in August 2009, was based on lesbian identity. She insisted that her walkout was in response to a work of art entitled Self Rape.

“I therefore would not, for any reason, be part of any tendencies that undermine the rights of people. I accept and respect the rights of people of different sexual orientation. The claims that I am homophobic are baseless and insulting to me.

“I have not imposed censorship on any artists, and the funding policies of my ministry and department are very clear. What I think is necessary in our country today is a long overdue debate on what is art — and where do we draw the line between art and pornography.”


About Zanele Muholi:

ZANELE Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban, in 1972. She completed an advanced photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, and held her first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004.

She has worked as a community relations officer for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women and as a photographer and reporter for online magazine Behind the Mask. Her work represents the black female body in a frank way that challenges the usual portrayal of black women’s bodies in documentary photography.

Her solo exhibition “Only half the picture”, which showed at Cape Town’s Michael Stevenson Gallery in 2006, travelled to the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam. In 2008 she had a solo show at Milan’s Le Case d’Arte.

She received the 2005 Tollman Award for Visual Arts, the first BHP Billiton/Wits University Visual Arts Fellowship in 2006, and was the 2009 Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. — source: www.zanelemuholi.com

Do you need help? LGBT resources

Visit the Joint Working Group website for a list of lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender South African organisations in your area or call the Lesbian and Gay Centre in Durban at 031 301 2145 or e-mail the Durban Lesbian and Gay Centre here.

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