South African Photographer Captures Challenges for LGBT Community, Almost a Decade After Gay Marriage Legalization

The entrance to Zanele Muholi's exhibition, 'Isibonelo/Evidence,' at the Brooklyn Museum, on display until November. Michael Ip for Newsweek

On a brisk spring day in New York, a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling on gay marriage, South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi was discussing why its legalization in America had been such a halting, patchwork affair.

Muholi had just arrived from London to oversee the setup of an exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum titled Isibonelo/Evidence, which opened on May 1 and will run until November 1 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

When South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006, part of a remarkable reworking of its post-apartheid legislature, it was an immediate blanket ruling for the country, one that said, "Everybody who feels, and decides, to tie the knot, let those people be respected and be given the chance to do so in order to protect their estate, in order to protect their children. In order to protect themselves," Muholi said.

She wished the same for America's LGBT communities, and hoped her work expressed that sentiment. "In America and every part of the world, you have individuals who identify as gay and also trans-people," the Johannesburg-based artist said. "I wanted to share that … we are everywhere and also we are you, in different ways or different forms," she said. "To share with the people of this country that we have our pride."

Portraits from Muholi's ongoing 'Faces and Phases' series, part of her exhibition titled 'Isibonelo/Evidence' at Brooklyn Museum. Michael Ip for Newsweek

Muholi's exhibition recently was cited as a must-see over Gay Pride Week by The New York Times, a "perfect, exhaustive introduction" to an artist who has "spent her career creatively making South Africa's black lesbian and transgender worlds more visible."

Visitors to Isibonelo/Evidence are greeted by a large photograph of the identity document of Disebo Gift Makau, held up by her mother. Makau, a 24-year-old lesbian, was raped and murdered in a small town in South Africa last year, her killer sentenced to two life terms this May, according to local LGBT organization Despite being constitutionally protected, members of South Africa's LGBT community face ongoing brutal acts of rape, violence and homophobia.

Against one of the exhibition's walls is a grid of 60 black-and-white portraits of South African lesbians, many of whom are activists, part of Muholi's Faces and Phases project, ongoing since 2006 and recently compiled into a book.

Muholi, 43 this July, is a vocal campaigner for the protection of the rights of South Africa's LGBTI communities. Her art is aimed at combating pervasive discrimination, to slowly "change people's mindsets ... in order for them to know that we are ... one of you, we therefore need respect, recognition," she says. "Because we're not committing any crime, we are taxpayers, we are individuals, we belong to homes."

She has exhibited in Sao Paulo, Venice and Germany to much acclaim. In addition to her work appearing at the Brooklyn Museum this summer, Muholi's art was on display at The Photographers' Gallery in London from April 17 to June 7. She currently serves as a jury member in Amsterdam for the 2015 Pride Photo Awards and she will shortly return to Oslo, Norway to continue a collaboration with a group of lesbian artists.

Muholi, pictured at the Brooklyn Museum in April. Michael Ip for Newsweek

Muholi views her work as a "visual history" of individuals, who are informed by their past and the people around them. "We don't want people to think that [the community] never existed, because many generations that existed before us never had an opportunity to express [themselves]," she says. "Those who were in positions of power, who through history decided who had to be in history books or not, left many of our voices out."

The exhibition includes video and multimedia such as detailed hand-beaded works depicting headlines of atrocities committed against gay South Africans, displayed close to a series called Weddings, joyful scenes from Muholi's friends' same-sex unions. "I'm trying to show that there's binaries in life between … death and life, joy and pain, or pain and loss," Muholi says.

South Africa continues to be "a very homophobic, prejudiced society" despite its forward thinking legislation and government programs, says Dawie Nel, director of OUT, a Pretoria-based nonprofit which provides health services for the LGBT community. "I think it's an incredibly violent society that must have to do with our past. It's always been very violent and inhumane, the way people have been treated." Poverty, unemployment and the poor distribution of basic services have contributed to "a cycle of incredible frustration," Nel says.

Nate Freeman, an American lawyer who just completed an almost 7,500-mile bike ride through Africa to raise awareness for LGBT rights, says artwork like Muholi's has "an incredible role to play in that movement and in that dialogue." Freeman spent a year clerking for openly gay South African constitutional judge Justice Edwin Cameron, and said he was continually inspired by the artwork in South Africa's Constitutional Court, which was very deliberately designed to express the move toward democracy the country was taking. The art served as a constant reminder that "your legal regime is important, but it's linked [to] what type of artistic voices are giving color to the type of values you're trying to promote through that regime," Freeman says.

'Ayanda & Nhlanhla Moremi's wedding I. Kwanele Park, Katlehong, 9 November 2013.' “I’m trying to show that there's binaries in life between … death and life, joy and pain, or pain and loss,” Muholi says. Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence is organized by Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Family Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, with Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum. Zanele Muholi / Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Muholi is the co-founder of the Johannesburg-based Forum for the Empowerment of Women, a LGBT nonprofit working toward implementing the non-discrimination enshrined in South Africa's Constitution. In 2009, she started Inkanyiso, Zulu for "the one who brings light," a skills training program with a website where the people featured in her photographs, many of them activists she calls her "collaborators," can share their thoughts and their work. Muholi also regularly brings her collaborators with her to international exhibitions to try to highlight their activism.

For her trip to Brooklyn, Muholi was accompanied by filmmaker Terra Dick as well as Pastor Zenzi Zungu and her wife, Magesh Zungu, who hoped to talk to groups about the LGBT-friendly church they had founded in Durban. "This is our history," Magesh Zungu says of Muholi's work. "We fought for our freedom and our children will grow and they will see this in the future … we started somewhere."

Muholi equates the fight for LGBT rights with the struggle to end institutionalized racism in South Africa. "People had the notion that black people were less than the white race and it meant that slowly, or in time, white people had to understand that there's nothing wrong with us and we need to be respected," Muholi said. "The more visible we become, the better."

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