The Zanele Muholi exhibition at Tate Modern is an extremely compelling and visually stunning show. Its mission goes beyond giving space to marginalised LGBTQIA+ voices (especially the lives of lesbians in South Africa) it creates a new visual narrative from which history is written by the people who own it. It touches on the painful aspects of the human condition. It talks about what happens when part of an oppressed minority is not accepted in of a society still reckoning with the devastating effects of colonialism and apartheid. It’s about survival, evolution and pride. Their struggle is more relevant now more than ever since then #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The exhibition shows intimate moments between female depicting a new more joyful narrative of lesbian love. The show continues to portray colourful pictures of participants in public spaces. Queering Spaces for example is about reclaiming the Durban beach which was segregated during apartheid.
It was not so much the visual transformation of some participants that struck me but the deep soulful stare in their eyes. Part of what makes Muholi’s work compelling is the palpable emotional dimension that transpires their work. The slow transformation reads like a snapshot of a story in yet to unfold.
Moholi’s work is impressive because they are an activist in a country where lesbians can get killed simply for being who they are. These also face brutalities such as “corrective rapes” due to their perceived sexual orientation. Many of these hate crimes go unpunished. the sad part is that this does not just happen in South Africa but in many other countries were marginal people’s voices are simply discounted. Many of the people they interview talk about a lack of economic opportunity and the need to create jobs that are safe so that their lives are not pushed underground.
Another concept they challenge is that of homonationalism which is the idea that somehow certain nations of the west own the discourse of LGBTQIA+ liberation and that somehow this justifies xenophobic and islamophobic perspectives. This is dangerous because it perpetuates a sense of otherness that is not conducive to constructive dialogue between the privileged west and other nations. I have to say though that the day I went to see the exhibition I did not see any black people in the audience which makes me question if this show is being seen by enough people to initiate real change but its a start.