Zanele Muholi is a 40-year-old South African photographer. (You can see a good sampling of her work best through a simple Google images search.) "I call myself a visual activist," she says. What she does is simple: She makes portraits of black lesbians in South Africa, taking their sheer existence into a visual embrace.
Her work is about South Africa, where lesbians present a particular challenge to various establishments. In 2009, the minister of culture walked out of an exhibition of her work declaring the photographs "immoral" and "against nation building." As one of the women in her films says, "We are like this. We love ourselves... Why do we have to suffer? Why, why, why, why, why lesbians, all the time." (If lesbianism is against nation-building, maybe we'd be better off without nations. It's not the first time the idea has been floated that even democratic nations are good for your health only depending on your status within them.)
One of Muholi's series documents lesbian couples in intimate moments. The moments are not provocative, unless you disagree with the fact that they are happening. The series is called Being. "Beauty doesn't mean you have to smile or brush your teeth or try harder," is Muholi's philosophy. "All you have to do is just be."
"I want people to know that we are here, and we are part and parcel of this democracy," Muholi says. She's fighting the entrenched idea, as another scholar says, that "homosexuality is non-African."
It's not only about Africa. It's also about belonging generally, belonging while being— having a place in the world without having to erase something essential about yourself. Earlier this year, thieves broke into Muholi's Cape Town apartment and stole her images, but left all the "valuables," as if to try to erase her archive.
Muholi is a major artist internationally, yet she is here under the auspices of UW's gender studies area rather than its art department. (Perhaps there is some kind of distant relationship between that and the fact that, as she has described on film, "even spelling museum—m-u-s-e-u-m—wasn't part of my upbringing.") The only way I heard about her visit was through a friend—who happened to text me right at the moment when I was reading about Muholi in a New York Times review from last weekend.
Muholi speaks at Kane Hall 225 tonight at 7, and then Wednesday at Allen Auditorium at 6, she will screen and discuss her 45-minute film Difficult Love (which you can watch in its entirety on IMDB) (calendar details for the UW events).