Zanele's powerful images

Gepubliceerd op 27 juli 2013 om 20:10

by Lesego Tlhwale

Elegance, good wine, conversation and Deutsch/Flemish opening speech by known Belgian professor, I remembered that this is not a dream but I’m in another country.

Yesterday Faces & Phases exhibition opened at the Gallery Verbeeck Van Dyck in Antwerp, Belgium which will coincide with the 2013 World Outgames. The series was one of many shows that Zanele Muholi’s series held at different venues in various places.

I had the pleasure of attending a couple of Muholi’s exhibitions before in South Africa and in 2012 I was at the Goethe Institute, Johannesburg opening of the Faces and Phases 3rd series where my portrait was one of the 60+ faces exhibited.


The series is a collection of black & white lesbian and transgender portraits taken by Muholi since 2006 till present. It is a lifetime project of Muholi and one of her best work ever, she attested and said, “faces and phases is the greatest project I have ever done, and I am proud of it.”

The exhibition has been shown all over the world at different galleries. Reccently the series was featured at the Venice Biennale, Italy and at Kunstplass 5 in Oslo, Norway  - I See Rainbow exhibition was part of the Oslo Pride festival.

Last night’s event was my first international exhibition opening I attended as a viewer and as a participant featuring in the series.


Seeing my portrait up there on a white wall being looked at by +-100 white people in a foreign country was something I never thought would happen. Although I knew that Muholi’s work is shown all over the world, I never thought I would be there in that kind of space were people look at your photograph and minutes later look at you with sympathy.

One guest came to me and told me how brave I was to take a photograph, which tell tales of my sexuality and its shown at a public space while I live in a country where hate crime is rife.


Even though her concerns were geniune judging from the situation in South Africa; the corrective rape pandemic and senseless killing of innocent black lesbians in townships. I felt that as black lesbians we have limited identity in the eyes of some outsiders abroad especially those who have never visited South Africa, we are only viewed as hate crime victims and nothing else.

While at the exhibition Muholi shared with me that one of the guest who sat with her to discuss the images pointed one of the potraits and said that, “the person in that portrait look like she won’t live for long.”



Muholi engaging with gallery guests.
Photo by Pierre Moeremans (26.07.2013)


Drawing from that statement, I realised that people abroad sympathise with our situation back at home; however, I feel they over analysing the whole situation.  Let alone that today marks 27 days since Duduzile Zozo was killed in Thokoza, Johannesburg.

I have known Muholi since 2009 and her images to me didn’t make much sense to me at first, all I saw was faces of black lesbians which I admired and I also wanted my photo to be taken and my portrait to be part of a collection and a representation of South African lesbians.

I didn’t know what I know now about Muholi’s work and the message behind it. Working with and Inkanyiso over the past few months made me understand the importance behind the portraits.

Muholi explains her work by saying; “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 photograher/activist and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places, explains Muholi.
The confrontation that Muholi is talking about has moved the ‘overseas’ viewer from being about her and the lesbians she photographs. It is also about the portrait and the audience viewing it. What I witnessed here was something incredible and creepy at the same time, I saw queer and non-queer individuals being moved by confrontational potraits of black lesbians and transgender people from Africa.

Me, being at the opening made realize the power of the visuals, the power of how a face with little emotion could speak volumes or tell so much about a person‘s situation regardless of whether you know the person or not.

A month ago I celebrated my 27th birthday, and as a self identifying black lesbian, living in one of South Africa’s townships I feel fortunate to have travelled as far as Antwerp, Belgium to attend an exhibition where my portrait features.

Most of my peers in South Africa are being killed in their 20′s, some of those who have died featured in Muholi’s photography and unfortuately they won’t have the same opportunity I have now to see the power of their imagery.

The series will continue to move Belgians and 2013 World Outgames visitors until the25 August 2013. A month is not enough for this powerful exhibition however, by the time the portraits are taken down they would have touched a dozen of lives. Inkanyiso will be documenting the WOGA and Human Rights conference as from the 31st July – 11 Aug. 2013.

We are truly grateful to the Verbeeck family  for the special invitation that granted us the opportunity to shine in Antwerp!


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