The cover is a large crimson drop of menstrual blood on grey – starkly beautiful and simple, yet elementally powerful. Page through Only Half the Picture, Zanele Muholi’s first book of her remarkable photography, and you’ll be confronted by many images that are challenging, explicit, political and almost always beautiful.
Picture a black woman strapping on a white dildo covered with a condom; close up on a police case number receipt for rape and assault, a woman ritualistically binding her breasts with bandages, lesbian lovers kissing and intertwined; and the visual symmetry between a tree’s curled roots and a vagina. Muholi’s work is a landmark in representing the black lesbian experience in South Africa; a world that has traditionally been an invisible one.
Muholi’s images are rooted in her background as an activist for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW). In art, a didactic or activist impetus often makes for bad work (look at much of our protest theatre), but somehow Muholi’s photos never fall into this trap. She insists that she is not interested in beauty, adding that, “I don’t want to do yet another beautiful image. For me, the pictures mean something”. Yet, there’s a powerful aesthetic impulse visible in the mostly black and white images that is as striking and important as their content.
Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban, in 1972, in a community in which the notion of a career in photography was an alien concept: “When I grew up I knew only one other photographer”, she says. She now lives in Johannesburg, where she is a visible player in the LGBT rights movement. Although she has been taking photographs for some time (the book’s works spanning 2002 to 2006), she only formalised her skills with an advanced photography course two years ago.
Her images have been published in books, newspapers and magazines and she has exhibited at the South African National Gallery, the Johannesburg Art Gallery and most recently at the Michael Stevenson Gallery. Muholi has also been awarded the prestigious Tollman Award for the Visual Arts and the LGBTI Arts and Culture Award, both in 2005. Not too shabby for a career only a few years in the making.
Women are her dominant subject matter, specifically black and often lesbian women. She presents images that few have seen in print; women in private and intimate moments – naked, bleeding, at times scarred, and always very human. She documents lovers, the female body, and survivors of hate crimes. “These pictures tell a lot of stories,” says Muholi. The book includes images of women that have been raped – often supposedly to be “cured” of their lesbianism – a reality that she deals with regularly in her work at FEW, and something she is determined to humanise.
Her photographs display an overt sexuality and preoccupation with the politics of the body – think of Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Muholi shares a certain explicit sensibility – that is rarely seen among black South African female photographers. This is something that exasperates her. “Women need to know that it is not a male thing; that it is okay to hold your camera and use it as a weapon to deal with your experiences”.
She’s not interested in photographing gay people in any conventional way as the usual ciphers, such as men in frocks and women on bikes; “I want to go beyond gay Pride”, she says. Muholi believes that a person’s sexuality is visible in every aspect of their lives – from the way they walk to the way they breathe. And it’s that subtle yet visible identity that she wants to capture in her work.
She’s also concerned with breaking down ignorance about lesbians within black communities: “In my books there are pictures of a lot of [menstrual] periods; there’s this idea that butch women don’t bleed. People are confused about a lot of issues that haven’t been explored…”
Muholi expresses her resentment that so much of black gay life has been documented by foreign photographers who do so from an external perspective. The subjects become an exotic “other” – the work an ethnographic exercise, the experience little different from coming to Africa to photograph the wildlife.
Because of the intimacy of many of the moments Muholi captures, she herself is wary of being perceived as exploiting her subjects. She says that she will often sit down with a subject to make a joint decision on what images are finally exhibited or published. I ask her how she finds these subjects, and Muholi immediately reacts by stating that she hates using that term:
“I don’t want to call people ‘subjects’ because it means that I don’t have respect for them. These are people that are being photographed. I understand them and they understand me. They are people that are very close to me – ranging from my mum to ex lovers, current lovers…”
She explains that she will often spend days with her subjects before she picks up the camera. “It’s a matter of trust. It starts off with a person knowing you and then they start trusting you and you take it from there.” And she always makes it clear exactly what she expects of them; “I tell them, ‘I need to take a picture of you in this position or that position.’”
It can be an often painstaking process, requiring much thought, and planning. “You have to think, what is it that you want to capture and why. It’s not just pointing and shooting something”, she says, adding that, “sometimes I take months before I capture one image”. When I ask if she considers her work erotic, she seems taken aback by the question. Muholi eventually decides that she prefers the term “sensual”.
She is passionate about making a difference, about communicating, and the power of the lens both for the viewer and the photographer. “I wish I could share this gift with other gay people”, she says. With Only Half the Picture, Zanele Muholi has taken a significant step in doing just that.
Only half the picture is published by STE & the Michael Stevenson Gallery. It available at most large bookstores and retails for around R260.00 or can be bought directly from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top Image: ID Crisis (2003). Bottom image: Tripple III (2005)