by Will Whitney
Visual Activism & Performa 17
“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.”
-Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing
Founded in 1925, The Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints had always held a special significance to the neighborhood of Harlem. It was an add-on to the 135th Street Branch Library to address the needs of a neighborhood in flux. Now called the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it is one of the Research Libraries of The New York Public Library and houses exhibition galleries, a theatre, as well as the Langston Hughes auditorium.
Dressed in all black, with headphones around her neck Zanele Muholi arrived with her personal photographer, Terra Dick, and we toured the historic building. Zanele paid close attention, paying respect to the history of the building that houses Langston Hughes’s ashes and carries some of the world’s best research facilities regarding the experiences of Africans and those of African diaspora.
Known as visual activist—as opposed to an artist or a photographer—Muholi has been traveling to universities and colleges in the United States since early October. Sitting together in the Langston Hughes Auditorium, she stresses the importance of her trip, highlighting how the lack of black presences in many spaces of higher education implores her to keep creating: “There are spaces I go to at times and you find that there is a lack of black presence in spaces, and you think what’s going on? We thought that we had overcome this, or I thought we were getting somewhere, but then it becomes something else when you don’t see yourself in that space. It really forces me to produce even more content that speaks to members of my community.”
Muholi speaks with missionary fervor, noting how important it is—especially in the divisive times that we find ourselves in—for her to put content out. “Self-love and self-care are very important in what I do these days.” She says her journey is not a solo one, and that, despite her solo success as an artist, what she is doing is for others who are not as fortunate or empowered as she is. Muholi regards herself as the messenger, someone who was given a platform through photography and has chosen to use it as a form of activism. The term “visual activism” is about “pushing a political agenda, in very diverse ways, reaching out beyond the normal way to reach out, touching people’s hearts in different ways, and engaging deeply. It is using visual language as a means of articulation and saying ‘this is us. This is about us, produced by us. For us.’”
Muholi’s collaborations occur in two phases; the first being photos primarily from the self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail, the Dark Lioness”) that were featured on billboards and subway kiosks throughout the city. They could be seen on billboards in Times Square and the City Point shopping mall in Brooklyn, as well as in major subway stations such as Broadway Lafayette, Broadway Junction, Barclays Center, and Hunters Point.
For the second phase, a group of South Africans joined Muholi, many of whom would not have been able to experience the United States were it not for Muholi and Performa facilitating their arrival. While Muholi talked at multitude of venues throughout the city, including a discussion at the Schomburg Center with fellow photographer Renee Cox, her entourage sought to bring South Africa culture to New York, performing songs and dances from their native land.
The pictures feature Muholi dressed in very exotic, eye-grabbing garb, defiantly staring at the camera as if daring anyone to challenge her or her identity. The self-love aspect of her work is visible in these photographs. Muholi proudly puts herself on display in the hopes that it allows others to do the same and feel comfortable in their own skin. For Muholi, this is another exciting chance to share the spotlight with those from her homeland. In her efforts to bridge a gap between cultures, she offers subtle, but consistent, reminders that her main priority is seeking to open a dialogue and allow both her reality to be experienced globally as well as allowing those from her reality to experience another culture different from their own.
Yet it must be acknowledged that both Muholi and Performa are taking a risk with these images and talks. This is New York City, a place where both billboards and kiosks are heavily used for advertisements. There is a danger that her images simply register as ads for Performa to viewers who are foreign to Muholi’s work and her message. While Muholi is aiming to reach out, to both embrace and educate New Yorkers, she in turn requires that they embrace her back, and listen to her message. Her images are effective in that they leave a lasting impression, but the responsibility to learn more is heavily placed on the viewer. Muholi undoubtedly understands this; that for her work to be effective there must be a curiosity and willingness to understand. “What has been most important for us, or for me, is how people are curious what we have to share.” Muholi speaks honestly about how important it is to her that people understand the importance of queer LGBTI content.
While extremely appreciative of Performa, Muholi knows that this is just another step in a long-fought battle towards equality. “Beyond just Performa, one should think beyond just the space that is created for you and think ahead. Now we have a platform that is created by Performa, what do we do with it is the next question.” Muholi asks, “How do we extend this dialogue beyond just what is given to us?”
Despite South Africa legalizing same sex marriage in 2006, the country is still riddled with continuous homophobic violence and corrective rape. Murder is not out of the question. This makes Muholi’s quest of LGBTI documentation even more dissident, seeking to inform those who hide behind violence and hatred that their attempts to silence others will not be successful. “This is beyond ads, I’m not here to entertain, I’m here to share information, I’m part of Performa because I want to share information and knowledge that our people possess, especially Black LGBTI people from South African cities, from Cape Town, from Deben, from Johannesburg, people who have never had passports until they received an invite from me to inform them that they are invited to come to New York.” Muholi passionately remarks, “We use all of these moves and actions as a therapy. It’s a way in which we speak, connect, commemorate, and celebrate our lives at the same time. It goes beyond just a piece of art. You’re talking about activism here, you’re talking about people’s lives, you’re talking about displacement and exclusion and insults and violations of many forms. We’re talking deeper. We are saying we remember. We are saying you are worthy. We are saying we recognize you.”
Performa 17 occurred November 1 – 19, 2017 at various locations across New York City. Zanele Muholi’s solo exhibition at Yancey Richardson runs until December 9, 2017
Will Whitney is writer who lives and works in New York.