Without a visual identity we have no community, no support network, no movement. Making ourselves visible is a continual process.In 2010 South Africa hosts the much spoken about Soccer World Cup which coincides with many other celebrations, among them 20 years of Gay Pride and 16 years of democracy. It is 54 years since the Women's March to Pretoria to protest pass laws in 1956; 34 years since the Soweto student uprising of 1976; 16 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and 14 years since the adoption of the Constitution. To be counted as equal citizens in our country, we black lesbians need to make ourselves visible in whatever way we can. We need to resist prejudice in all its forms especially when it displaces us because of our sexual orientation and gender expression.
Joan E Biren (1983)
Over the years various publications have chronicled South Africa's socio-political history, but very few have included the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people who contributed to these struggles for freedom and democracy. The mainstream archive and the women's canon lack visual, oral and textual materials that include black lesbians and the role they have played in our communities. While some redress has taken place to include queer icons, it was only after 1994 that black lesbian voices began to emerge. Previously we were excluded from participating in the creation of a formal queer movement and, although many black lesbians operated underground, few were recognised in gay publications.
Currently, we look to our Constitution for protection as legitimate citizens in our country. However, the reality is that black lesbians are targeted with brutal oppression in the South African townships and surrounding areas. We experience rape from gangs, rape by so-called friends, neighbours and sometimes even family members. Some of the 'curative rapes' inflicted on our bodies are reported to the police, but many other cases go unreported. At present South Africa has no anti-hate-crime legislation. Rampant hate crimes make us invisible. Coming out exposes us to the harshness of patriarchal compliance. We are also at risk when we challenge the norms of compulsory heterosexuality.
In the face of all the challenges our community encounters daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black queer visibility. It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here.
In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. Historically, portraits serve as memorable records for lovers, family and friends.
Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another. Faces is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places. Photographs in this series traverse spaces from Gauteng and Cape Town to London and Toronto, and include the townships of Alexandra, Soweto, Vosloorus, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Katlehong and Kagiso.
Phases articulates the collective pain we as a community experience due to the loss of friends and acquaintances through disease and hate crimes. Some of those who participated in this visual project have already passed away. We fondly remember Buhle Msibi (2006), Busi Sigasa (2007), Nosizwe Cekiso (2009) and Penny Fish (2009): may they rest in peace. The portraits also celebrate friends and acquaintances who hold different positions and play many different roles within black queer communities - an actress, soccer players, a scholar, cultural activists, dancers, filmmakers, writers, photographers, human rights and gender activists, mothers, lovers, friends, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons.
The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more 'authentic' than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?
Faces and Phasesis an insider's perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. Some of their stories gave me sleepless nights as I tried to process the struggles that were told to me. Many of the women I met had been violated and I endeavoured not to exploit them further through my work. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black today. Faces and Phases is about our histories and the struggles that we continue to face.
- Zanele MuholiDedicated to my late mama Bester Muholi and to all the black lesbian survivors and victims of hate crimes.
Special thanks to all the participants in the Faces and Phases series and to Ellen Eisenmann, Fikile Mazambani, Liesl Theron, Jessica Scott, Sabine Neidhardt, Sade Langa, Patricia Watson and my family for their continuous support.
© 2010 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.