Oh, the sad faces, black faces, a grave, a heap of soil, fistful young black women, pink and purple flag, people marching and carrying placards! On the placards, pregnant young women and the faces of Fezeka and Khwezi smiling. The mood is sombre. It’s a funeral. Not again! Not again! Who is it now? What happened? Immediately, I’m seething with anger. These things flooded my mind.
These are colourful, strong and beautiful images, the images of dead young black women hanging on a white painted wall. It’s the images of women who were in love with other women. They are dead. They’re no more. These images are provoking. These images are haunting. They’re forcing one to look at them without blinking an inch. They’re forcing one to contemplate. It’s in the Constitution Hill building in Johannesburg, a historical and important space where there is a section called Women’s jail and it’s during Women’s Month. Women across the board are supposedly celebrating the gains of their struggles.
Contemplating on the vulnerability and brutal killings of women seems to have been normalised. Contemplating on how unsafe our society is also crime has become the norm. It’s about the reality. It is REAL. I know they’re very unsettling but it’s REAL. It is REAL.
Essentially, these powerful images taken by young lesbians are forcing us women and society at large to think deeply about the meaning of the liberation of women and the fact that women cannot fully celebrate, especially if other women are not free. As unsettling as these images are, the message is loud and clear. They’re issuing out a warning to women that, at least in some important respects, it’s a man’s world given the fact that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes were men. Defiantly, women are not yet free. They are not free!
Yes, the photographs took me to a world where I don’t want to go. A world full of brutality, a world full of hatred, a world where sexuality matters more than breath. It is also a world where heterosexuals are seen as representing the social order of the day, where raping women and girls seems to be getting normalised, given what seems to be the growing frequency of media reports.
Zanele Muholi, a renowned photographer whose work always evokes these very unsettling emotions, wants us to question ourselves and interrogate how we as women are tackling the issue of gender based violence in this country. It’s making us women look into how we’ve allowed our sexual preferences to divide us, how we are fighting our oppression and what kinds of strategies are suitable for this enormous struggle. Realising that lesbianism is practiced by women from ethnically diverse backgrounds, it means it can affect people at large regardless of race, creed, or colour.
When one attends some Lesbians Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) marches and court cases the divisions are laid bare. For instance, when a lesbian has been murdered only a small fraction of women pay solidarity and this is exactly what Muholi’s exhibition is bringing to us.
In many instances black women are on the receiving end because of their blackness and poverty. Poor black women in particular, are living in squalor, where crime and unemployment is a huge problem. Socioeconomic status has divided us and assigned some of us where to pay solidarity. If women are divided according to their socioeconomic status in our society, how are women going to win the struggles against gender based violence? Thus, women cannot celebrate Women’s Month while other women are not. This is not how we, as women, should fight regarding the current issue. Our differences in sexual orientation must instead become a unifier.
As has been stated in this article, one could say that photographic images are a powerful recording art form. It can be seen as one tool that could assist in addressing painful and uncomfortable issues like gender based violence or death. Art should become one of the main subjects in schools and it needs to be introduced at a very young age, girls must be encouraged if not forced, to do photography. Thank you to young lesbians for taking us into that unsettling world through their lenses.
- Martha Qumba is a freelance journalist, author, writer and a filmmaker.