Invisible made visible: Zanele Muholi

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“Humanness in space”, “Making the Invisible Visible” were some of the terms used by the award winning visual artist and photographer Zanele Muholi from South Africa. She was addressing the audience at the inauguration of O.P.E.N (Open. Participate. Enrich. Negotiate) of SIFA (Singapore International Festival of Arts ) which showcased her bold portraiture exhibition,  Faces and Phases, and videos as part of the theme ‘Legacies of Violence’.

In Faces and Phases she captures her subjects, marginalised individuals from her home country,  giving them ‘faces’ and confronts the stereotypes of gender and sexuality. In her address she mentioned that even after 20 years of post – apartheid in her country inequality and discrimination continue in various ways though claiming otherwise.

With art and photography as a media she has been raging a constant and dangerous battle to give insight to hate crimes against black LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex). She has strived hard and brought to public attention, the horrendous ‘curative rape’ cases or ‘corrective rape’ cases, assault, HIV and brutal murders of black lesbians, thus using art for a social cause.

Initially starting off as a human/ lesbian rights activist she worked as a reporter and photographer for Behind the Mask an LGBTI website, bearing witness to countless acts of violent hate crimes. In 2002, she co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, a black lesbian organization based in Gauteng, dedicated to providing a safe space for women loving women to meet and organize. She was born in Umlazi, Durban, in 1972, and lives in Johannesburg.

After completing her advanced course in photography she held her first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. Later her study in Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, saw her producing a thesis mapping the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-apartheid South Africa. In 2009, she received a Fanny Ann Eddy accolade from IRN-Africa for outstanding contributions to the study and advocacy of sexualities in Africa. Also in 2009 Muholi was a Jean-Paul Blachère award-winner at the Rencontres de Bamako, African Photography Biennial, also winning the Casa Africa award for best female photographer living in Africa. She was the recipient of the Fine Prize for an emerging artist at the Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Also in 2013, she was made Honorary Professor of the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste Bremen; she won the Index on Censorship – Freedom of Expression art award in London and was named as one of Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers of 2013. Her Faces and Phases series was included on the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, Imaginary Fact: South African art and the archive (2013), on Documenta 13 in 2012, and on the 29th São Paulo Biennale in 2010 and many more.

Three books have been published on her work: Zanele Muholi: African Women’s Photographers#1 (Casa Africa/ La Fabrica2011) Faces and Phases (Prestel 2010); and Only Half the Picture (Stevenson, 2006). She has made videos like Difficult Love, @24, Ayanda & Nhlanhla Moremi’s Wedding, We live in Fear etc. Her documentary Difficult Love (2010) has been shown at various film festivals around the world.

Mr Ong Keng Sen, festival director of the Singapore for SIFA in his opening address said that he was in the jury that awarded her the 2013 Prince Claus Award in Netherlands. He was greatly impressed by her extensive work, her relentless dedication to dialogue and negotiate with the public and how art can be used to raise social issues. So he thought it appropriate as the opening exhibition at the O.P.E.N, public engagement initiative, befitting the theme ‘Legacies of Violence’.

To my query to her about the relevance of these individual portraits of people and that it could be just anybody she painstakingly explained:

These are people who have not been as lucky as others in this world. Every individual in the pictures has a story to tell. They are people who remain faceless. They are there in space yet unseen. It is my intention to acknowledge them and give them a face. A face among the faceless!

(Exhibition was held from 26 -29th June at 72-13, Muhamed Sultan Road. More about other events at O.P.E.N visit theopen.sifa.sg)

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