Power of the victor

2013-04-07 10:00

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Activist and photographer Zanele Muholi has lifted another international prize – but awards mean nothing compared to lives, she tells Charl Blignaut.

Zanele Muholi is ratty.

She’s not a morning person and she’s late.

I’m impatiently waiting for her outside her flat on the outer edges of Parktown, Joburg, because it turns out we’re neighbours.

“I was uploading the blog,” she says when she emerges on the pavement in her trademark hat.

I pout and say nothing. I notice that her dreadlocks are much shorter than before.

“I cut them every time I go through something. You need to lose part of you to get to a new place,” she says.

We head towards my block for coffee and I say I had no idea she’d relocated to Joburg.

“I feel much safer here next to Hillbrow than when I lived in Cape Town with the view of Table Mountain. That’s where I lost that part of my life.”

She’s referring to a break-in at her flat in Cape Town and the theft of her hard drives.

She literally lost years of photographs, which means SA queer history lost a chunk of one of its most important archives.

“It’s not about the photos, it’s about the stories behind them,” she says.

As tends to happen in her life, loss was followed by international gain.

She was one of 100 or so artists on the planet selected for Documenta, a prestigious exhibition in Germany held every five years, where she showed images from her life project Faces and Phases.

Visitors tell me she could be found at her black-and-white portraits of lesbians and transgender men every day, telling the stories behind the photos.

Many of her subjects are no longer alive.

As it turns out, international success is why I called her for an interview today.

Late last month in London, she was awarded an Index Freedom of Expression Award.

I make the mistake of mentioning the last time she was so prominently featured in the news – when then arts and culture minister Lulu Xingwana threw a homophobic hissy about her images of lesbians embracing.

Muholi says: “Let’s get this straight, Lulu didn’t launch me. I was doing work for a decade before that. The award was for a body of work that is actually about much more than black lesbians.

“It’s about black people who identify differently in South Africa. And it’s a pity when an artist is recognised outside South Africa and not at home – when we sweat and work here and the work is about here. I have had no financial support from government departments and it’s a struggle. And anyway, it’s not about awards, it’s about people’s lives. We have a huge problem in this country.”

I keep stepping in it. I call her “lady” and get a mouthful about culture and feminisation.

She empathises with transgender people and dislikes being placed in a box.

On the roof taking photos, I comment that she’s still refusing to smile for the press. She clicks her tongue. “What’s to smile about? I’m frustrated. Life is hectic.”

It’s only then, when I ask why life is hectic, that the conversation starts to turn.

“March is difficult,” she eventually says. “I lost friends in March.”

In London, she dedicated her award to Buhle Msibi and Busi Sigasa.

Both were subjects of her Faces and Phases portraits, both 25, both lesbian artists.

Both died of Aids and both survived hate crimes.

Their memories keep Muholi awake at night.

Their stories can be found on the blog she was updating while I was waiting and sending her tetchy SMSes.

Called Inkanyiso, the blog takes all of Muholi’s spare time (along with her women’s soccer team in Durban).

It tells the stories of the women and men she photographs.

“I’m trying to get these voices heard. To have a platform where they can tell their stories in their own way. Inkanyiso says we are here, we exist, black and queer, we are not un-African,” says Muholi.

She acknowledges the gains made in the past 20 years, “but the problem is the violence that tries to undo all we have won”.

The reality of daily life as a lesbian in the country’s townships, “corrective rape” and living with the HIV that often follows is what really resonates on Inkanyiso.

Later, reading the stories online, Muholi’s frown settles on my own forehead.

One entry is called I am not a Victim but a Victor, written by Lungile Dladla.

It reads: “I just remember my friend saying, ‘Please if you rape us use a condom.’ He asked why was I wearing guys clothes, my tongue was tied, I couldn’t say anything, so I kept quiet. He covered our faces with our clothes then he started.”

The terrible detail in Dladla’s account plays in my mind while I tried to sleep that night.

And what happened when she went to report the man who raped her and her friend at gunpoint?

“The police officers took us to some room. We told them what happened and as we were talking they stopped and asked me, ‘Nawe you were raped? How? That is impossible, you‘re a guy!’ What they said hurt me even more.”

Dladla was diagnosed with HIV.

Police failed to act on her charges.

It was only when she raised her voice as an activist and it was picked up by Kaya FM that the case was reopened.

The perpetrator was later convicted of 17 other rapes.

In the absence of official documentation of corrective rape, Muholi has taken it upon herself as a citizen, artist and activist to record what she can.

“I need to finish 500 portraits by the end of next year. The more I have the better. I want people to walk into a space and be consumed by these people and start asking questions.”

[gallery ids="48940,48923,48921"]

» Muholi’s multiple award-winning documentary, Difficult Love, can be viewed for free here (no under 17s).

»?You can find Muholi’s blog at inkanyiso.org

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