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South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi is on a mission to bring the experience of black lesbians in her home country to the forefront, as many members of the community face high rates of violence, including incidents of so-called “corrective rape.” Muholi's work is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through November. NewsHour's Tracy Wholf reports.
The mission is to ensure that we have– a visual history that speaks to the moment that will inform the future. And also to ensure that we document and archive the history of our people who are on a daily basis violated simply because of our gender expression and also because of our sexual orientation.
Zanele Muholi's work focuses primarily on the black lesbian experience, from moments of celebration and joy, to intimate portraits and stories that depict the violence many gay South Africans experience…everything from corrective rape, where lesbian are sexually assaulted by men who want to 'turn them straight' to murder.
Are you concerned about repercussions against your own family for the work that you do?
Unfortunately, a lot of innocent souls have been killed without even doing anything at all. But then if anything happens to me, at le– at least I'll die, you know, peacefully 'cause I'll know that I've acted to challenge any phobias that– that still persist.
Catherine Morris is the curator of Muholi's exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
Zanele's engagement with her community is coupled with her extraordinary photographic talent. She is simultaneously documenting her community, but at the same time speaking very eloquently about the history of photography and history of portraiture. And these black and white photographs resonate on so many levels because of that push/pull between the history that she's capturing and the community she's committed to.
Muholi struggled with her own identity as a black lesbian and even had thoughts of suicide when she was younger, but someone gave her a point-and-shoot camera and she began taking self-portraits and found it to be therapeutic.
Like, I'm one of those people who really doesn't mind to photograph– the self, you know? And I think it's the right thing to do. It's very, very important for us to look at us before we look at what is happening in the neighborhood.
Muholi's portrait series called 'Faces and Phases' is a collection of intimate photos she's taken of friends and acquaintances, people she refers to as 'collaborators.'
What are you looking for when you're setting up a shot and you're working with a collaborator?
I'm looking for me. You know, when some people say, 'You look at someone and you see yourself in them–' I'm looking for me that I never was. So I'm looking for the person, that person who– that lies in each and every one of us no matter what.
Despite gay rights being protected by law in South Africa, attacks against black lesbians are often overlooked and under investigated by authorities, according to human rights groups.
It's– it's– much harder to be a black lesbian in South Africa than it is to be a white lesbian.
Rosalind Morris is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University.
Violence against women is– not uncommon. So one finds a kind of intensification of that violence directed against black women for not conforming to ideals of femininity, on one hand, and for appearing to betray a– black cultural or a black national cause.
And while Muholi's work has been celebrated and embraced by art critics around the world, some of her more explicit and revealing photographs have led conservative politicians in South Africa to criticize her work – calling it 'immoral' and 'offensive.'
Your work has been met with criticism or controversy. How do you respond to those statements, those sentiments, that pushback?
When I'm being called a black lesbian controversial photographer, they basically say, "Continue to do it because you are doing the right thing."
Muholi's latest American show will run through November at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
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