Zanele Muholi ‘Vukani/Rise’ is a daring and honest exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, showing the difficulties faced by sexuality in South Africa. The exhibition focuses on black lesbian women and transexual men. It is very much set in reality and shows the everyday struggle and courage it requires to come out as homosexual in their communities. Many of the people Muholi has photographed live in fear for their lives and safety, therefore their willingness to be photographed shows their bravery.
The exhibition begins with what looks like a casting wall of portrait pictures called ‘Faces and Phases’ (2006-2015), these are a collection of photographs of lesbians and transexuals. It shows the people in their ordinary lives posing for the photograph. Noticeably there are blank spaces in the display, unfortunately this is not just a curation technique, it is people who have been killed because of their sexuality. Immediately, the striking power of the images comes through. Many of the women and men featured in the gallery have not even told their families, so to see them in a gallery space is truly amazing and moving.
It is hard to imagine the extent of difficulty and fear that they must live in, just for being who they are. In our culture we are very accepting of everybody, hence the ability to show such an exhibition. One can only wonder about the effect of the exhibition if it was shown in South Africa. In the next room, her collection of images entitled ‘ZaVa’ (2013) give an insight into Zanele’s personal life with her white partner. The intimate images bring the private to the public. Whilst the images could be described as voyeuristic they have a gentle vibe of two people who are happy together.
The next part of the exhibition to devoted to her collection entitled ‘Brave Beauties’ (2013-2014). The word ‘brave’ seems to sum up the entire exhibition. The images show transexual men replicating Vogue magazine covers, this part shows how comfortable they are being their true selves. Zanele captures the care-free looking images despite the persecution and violence they encounter. Another example of this is ‘Nathi Dlamini at the After Tears of Muntu Masombuka’s funeral’ (2013) this bright almost painting-like portrait captures Nathi Dlamini following the funeral of another transexual man. During a curators tour of the exhibition, we were told that Dlamini works as a baggage handler at an airport. This shows how they must conceal who they are.
The final piece ‘Mo (u) rning’ (2014) brings about feelings of loss and those who have been killed for their sexuality. The images show friends remembering who has died. The themes of sadness and reflection are particularly prominent in this work. Overall, the exhibition shows both the celebration of sexuality with “Brave Beauties’ and the tragedy with ‘Mo (u) rning’. Zanele’s exhibition is extremely is extremely important and powerful.
Image: Zanele Muholi/Open Eye Gallery, 2015 © Paul Karalius