As the Goethe-Institut Sudafrika prepares its gallery walls for the latest collection, “Faces and Phases”, by the talented Zanele Muholi, the LGBTIQ community, especially black lesbians, fill their minds with imaginings of how their faces will be captured in the photographs in this phase of her work.
Zanele describes her most recent collection as a presentation of “our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond.” She has chosen to use portraiture to capture the aesthetics and faces of the many lesbians, women and transmen she has encountered in her travels. She skillfully infuses these faces with the phases that sweep through the LGBTI community, with special emphasis on hate crime and disease related fatalities.
This, to me at least, is not unexpected. Over the past three or so years, I have become quite familiar with her work and there is an apparent theme to her vast collection of photographs and screen interpretation. At a documentary screening I had the privilege of asking her why she chooses, (and yes chooses to, because it is a choice) to focus her art on the black person who does not identify with the socially accepted norm in terms of sexuality and gender indoctrination? Why her subjects are predominantly members of the LGBTIQ community? Her answer was almost too simple in its logic. It is what she knows. It was what she has experienced. It is what she has lived and continues to live, everyday.
The essence of art, in my street gallery educated opinion, is that it is an expression of some sort of emotion. It has manifested itself in various forms, challenging the internal tranquillity or demonic entities that live within. It is, often, also known to take on the shape of the energies that exist in the artists’ immediate environment. Art is the most prolific interpretation of the artist’s struggles and triumphs. This is evident throughout the galleries of the world.
What is also ever present on the gallery walls and spaces of those who continue to host the works of people a friend of mine has termed “non-normative individuals” is a strong exhibition of self identity, self and societal acceptance and the woes of the community as and when it relates to the artist personally. So how does one interpret this? Does the LGBTIQ community only have narcissism and vanity to put on show? Is our artistic ability beached on issues of accepting our “otherness” and the everyday battles of “us”? Are we capable of nothing else other than telling our stories through film, poetry, visual artistry and other mediums? Are we that vain that we only make efforts to exhibit “our” joys and pains?
This question rings loud in my mind’s core as I lay out my plaid shirt and one-size-too-big shorts for the exhibition opening? Such a question only deserves a fair amount of research, so I turn to the ever trusted archives of my many amateur art excursions. The first that comes to mind is Kudzanai Chiurai’s exhibition which was entitled “The Black President”: a photographic experience mixed with performance art that tells of the stereotype of the President who reigns over a few million Afrikans under the pretext of democracy. An apparent reality in his life as he hails from the great country that is, in my again amateur political opinion, under dictatorship rule. This is his interpretation of his Zimbabwean situation and also that translates to the larger Afrikan community. Something he knows. Something he experiences. Something he has lived and continues to live.
Another artist that I have recently become acquainted with is Jean-Michel Basquiat. A sad member of the 27’s club, this man died in the eighties with over one thousand paintings and over a thousand drawings ready to be shown to the world. Jean-Michel battled the reality of just being another young Black talented contemporary artist. This was a label he could never escape. This he realised the hard way, that even after successfully putting together a collection with Andy Warhol, one of the world’s most influential and accomplished contemporary artists of the 20th century, he was still seen as the garden boy of art in the 70s and 80s in New York. His most prolific expression of this, in my opinion, is his interpretation of Black artists trying to appeal to the tastes of White liberals in the piece entitled “Natives carrying some Guns, Bibles, Amorities on Safari”. He knew this reality because of his life in downtown Manhattan. His experierence was the only reference that his “white friends” had for all Black people as he was the only Black person that they knew. He lived it. He died in it. He was just another talented Black man. Never to be removed from that title.
So I bring you back to the artist who identifies with a non-normative label. I bring you back to the artist who tells his story through his art. I introduce you to a man by the name Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian born homosexual man, who uses the medium of photography to guide you through the experience of great tension in identifying as gay man and trying to stay true to Yoruba origins. Is he vain? I introduce you to a man by the name of Richard Fung who uses the medium of film to tell the stories of other immigrants who struggle with their Asian identity in the West, and those of them who further struggle with the plague of homophobia in the Oriental. Is he stuck in trying to box his identity? I introduce you to Zackary Drucker who collaborates in an amazing piece with Vaginal Davis about their transition from hims to hers. Are they seeking acceptance that is unwarranted?
I divert your attention to me; a repeat offender. In the words I pen and define as poetry I speak of the love I have of her. I speak of the complex relationship I have, and apparently share, with religion. I speak of my mistress, who should be my main lady; spirituality. I speak of the horrors that paint my window panes and grab at my being when I walk the streets of Joburg. I speak of my triumphs. I speak of my pain. I speak of me and call it art.
Simply to answer the question posed above, you can call me vain. You can call them self indulgent. It is what we know. It is what we experience. It is what we live, everyday, and what we will continue to live. To tell our personal stories is necessary.
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