Visual Activists at Work
LGBT Film Festival brings groundbreaking South African doc to town
Published: June 5, 2013
Directed by Peter Goldsmid and Zanele Muholi
At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson June 8 at 5 p.m.
The only mistake Millicent Gaika made was being kind. She was in her South African township coming home one evening when a man she knew approached her and asked for a cigarette. She gave him one and decided to share it with him. He started smoking and wouldn’t pass it to her, and she followed him into his room when he tried to walk away from her. Once inside, he locked the door and attacked her, beating her, choking her, tying her up, and raping her multiple times over a period of five hours.
When Gaika shows up onscreen in the documentary Difficult Love, which screens as part of the second annual Charm City LGBT Film Festival at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson this week, her lip is split. One eye is heavily bruised, the other swollen shut. A ring of finger and hand bruises runs around her neck. And she recounts this ordeal with a voice that’s barely audible. The documentary, co-directed by filmmaker Peter Goldsmid and artist Zanele Muholi, is a portrait of Muholi and her work, which offers a sobering exploration of lesbian lives in South Africa, where the possibility of sexual violence is an everyday fear. Gaika’s rapist attacked her because of her sexuality. He wanted to cure her of being a lesbian by showing her that she is a woman, not a man. At least, that is what he told Gaika.
While Difficult Love shows news footage of South Africans appalled by this crime, it also includes a TV news clip of an African man alluding to that homily of Christian compassion, that the Bible talks about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The 2009 paper “Hate crimes: The rise of ‘corrective rape’ in South Africa,” published by the UK-based nonprofit organization ActionAid, shockingly reports: “It is estimated that almost half of all South African women will be raped during their lifetime. And for every 25 men bought to trial for rape in South Africa, 24 walk free.”
This situation is one aspect of the world into which Muholi was born in 1972, in the Umlazi township of Durban, on the southeast coast of South Africa. Early on in Difficult Love, Muholi explains that making art didn’t seem like an option for a young girl like her, that in the township it was as if the words “museum” and “gallery” didn’t exist. She also says that, growing up, she never saw images that reflected how she felt or who she was. Images on South African TV and in advertisements and media were overwhelmingly heteronormative, always showing a man and a woman. This is what a normal family looks like. There are no other options.
Since her debut solo photography show in 2004, Muholi has worked to change that visual landscape. She identifies herself as a “visual activist,” and her work intimately and cannily rethinks and represents South Africa. She started the ongoing “Faces and Phases” series, in which she photographs women in their communities to raise awareness of black lesbians in South Africa. Muholi’s mother worked for a single white family for 42 years, and Muholi cast herself as a domestic worker for the “Massa and Mina(h)” series to explore the complicated power and personal relationships of domestic labor. In March, Muholi was awarded the Freedom of Expression Arts award by the international organization Index on Censorship alongside Syrian internet activist Bassel Khartabil, Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, and teenage Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Her work is currently installed in the South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.
Muholi remains lesser-known in the U.S.—an exhibition of some images from “Faces and Phases” opened in April at New York’s Yancey Richardson Gallery, a rare American solo show—which makes the Charm City LGBT film festival’s free screening of Difficult Love a chance to receive a primer in the work and life of a photographer who combines activism and exquisite imagery. A devastating intimacy marks Muholi’s photographs, not only because some capture tender moments between two people, but because the level of trust between the people being photographed and the photographer is intensely present in the end results. The image of Millicent Gaika is hard to shake: a woman physically beaten and violated into fear. It’s a frightening reminder to South African lesbians of what could happen to them simply for being themselves.
Much of Muholi’s imagery is defiantly jubilant. In her portraits—be it the couple Petra Brink and Pra-line Hendricks, who were kicked out of a shelter for being lesbians, or fashion designer Viola May, who talks about wanting a baby—she builds relationships with women that allow them to relax, laugh, and be themselves. Her work captures this ordinary humanity; the mere admission of such, that lesbians are human, is problematic for some people. Difficult Love opens with news footage reporting that, in March 2010, Lulama Xingwana, the South African Minister of Arts and Culture, walked out of a gallery exhibition of Muholi’s photographs. At the time, her spokesperson told the Times of South Africa that Xingwana felt the art was “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”
Such moral outrage is all too familiar—recall that in 2010 David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek, exhibition was called offensive by Catholic League President Bill Donohue—and one of the side effects of watching Difficult Love, as least for this reviewer, was realizing how ignorant I am of South Africa’s LGBT history. Brink and Hendricks’ Zulu speech is subtitled during interviews in the documentary, but while listening, you notice that both use “lesbian” to refer to themselves, as if their language doesn’t even have a word for who they are. It makes you remember Muholi saying that the word “museum” didn’t exist in her township, and it’s a subtly powerful reminder that language is one of many culturally potent exercises of power. What we call things, like what we see every day, makes them part of the everyday vocabulary, and Muholi’s artwork aims to present the everyday lives of South Africa’s black lesbians as part of her country’s history and its ongoing story.
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