I had never attended an art exhibition opening with so many people before. Bodies overflowed from the Wits Art Museum onto the streets. Bodies dressed in waistcoats, slender neck ties, skinny black pants and All-Star sneakers. Bodies squeezed into tight lace dresses. Bodies walking around confidently, aware that this exhibition was, more than anything, about them. And indeed, this particular exhibition’s subjects were to be found among the crowd. Having never been to a gay parade, I had never been exposed to such a high concentration of homosexuality.
Queer and Trans Art-iculations is a collaboration of two incredible visual activists: Zanele Muholi and Gabrielle Le Roux. Hosted by the Wits Art Museum in partnership with the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies and Inkanyiso, the exhibition opened up with the popular freedom cry ‘Amandla!’ and the lively crowd did not disappoint: ‘Amandla!’ they shouted back, fists in the air. For a while it seemed I had come to the wrong place.
Pregs Govender, Deputy Chair of the South African Human Rights Commission, pointed out that there is “mourning in this place”. I took a second to look around and saw faces belonging to gays, lesbians, people who were mourning the loss of loved ones, loss of respect, loss of human rights and loss of self. This mourning, a result of others’ intolerance. However, “We are not gathered here just in mourning” declared Pregs, “but in celebration of the power each of us possesses”.
When I looked into the faces of the subjects in Zanele’s work, I felt like I knew them. Those eyes that looked back were so familiar, like those of people we grew up with. The interpretation of art lies in the beholder yet I strongly feel that this must have been Zanele’s intention – that feeling of familiarity. The queer and transsexual faces looked back at me; some angry, some smiling, some seemed to flirt while others evoked a deep sense of sadness. When one walks into the exhibition space, the wall covered with portraits is the first thing you would notice (that’s if you don’t look down at the symbolic graves of those who lost their lives to the impudence, bigotry and ignorance of our fellow countrymen). A powerful sight, these images are accompanied by facts of just some of the homosexual individuals who have been victim to the LGBTI hate-crimes.
‘The works of both [Zanele and Gabrielle] speak to the complexities, challenges, freedoms and dangers of living beyond the gender binary’. And as Bongi, one of Zanele’s subjects appealed “Let’s do something… the silence of bystanders hurts even more”. I looked at the faces and I read the facts. By the time I reached the makeshift house (possibly a symbol of one’s body) whose walls were covered with personal accounts of rape, threats and heartache, my own heart bled for these men and (in particular) women. One read how these individuals have to constantly fight to be who they are, they have to live each day in fear, have to be ashamed of who they are.
Hearing Zanele speak, one realises that she has transpired beyond the role of ‘victim’ to that of ‘overcomer’. As she divulged, her surname means ‘leader’ and through her art and strength, she has been just that. I now look at a note I made that night and it reads: “Only a few minutes ago my heart bled for the victims of curial rape, now my heart swarms with hope that we will realise a society that accepts people for who they are. A society that has progressed beyond meaningless and unnecessary categorisations. This I now believe…”
As I was about to call it a night I encountered two striking women (hmmm, or woman and ‘man’, eish, who cares?). So I encountered these two tall beauties and asked to photograph them. They wilfully obliged. “Until we reach such a time where we do not have to protest, or march, or be asked whether we are a man or woman, until such a time we no longer have to have these exhibitions where we voice ourselves – that is when we will have obtained freedom”. Candice’s words lingered and twirled and danced with me as I headed home. That’s when I connect what is happening to the LGBTI community to the seemingly misplaced struggle songs and that powerful ‘Amandla!’ chorus. That’s when I got it.
See the exhibition
Venue: Wits Art Museum
Dates: January 30 – March 30, 2014
Times: exhibition facilitators available (Wed-Sun) 10:00 to 16:00
For more information contact the Wits Art Museum aon email@example.com or call 011 717 1378
Lots of LoVe,