Zanele Muholi’s exhibition of portraits titled ‘Isibonelo/Evidence’ at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is a comprehensive insight into the lives of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) community both in her home country of South Africa and abroad. Well known for her role as a photographer and human rights activist, Muholi captures the lives of a disregarded sector of society ostracized by their own community for their way of life and sexual orientation.
Best characterized by a stance of defiance that unites eighty-seven black and white portraits from her ‘Faces and Phases’ series, Muholi’s extensive gallery is elevated by the LGBTI community’s deportment. Though the title “Evidence,” might misleadingly suggest vivid documentation of alternate ways of life and people, the “evidence” can only be surmised from the portraits. Flanked on either side by walls of handwritten gritty descriptions of their experiences, and a historical calendar of more than a decade of murder and violence against the LGBTI community, the portraits - each a beacon of forbearance - come to life.
Examined in light of notes such as, “Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang rape women and murder lesbians, who beat their wives, they walk the streets as free men,” one can paint the close-minded society that they had to combat. Accounts by victims of “curative rapes,” that occurred frequently in many provinces including Cape Town and Soweto, for whom the choice of being with a member of the same sex is considered a deformity - “They tell me…after raping me that I will become a girl, I will become a straight girl,” allow the viewer to imagine the fear and terror that shroud the lives of these individuals.
Determined to fight against being silenced and permanently exterminated, the portraits command our attention and demand recognition. While ‘Collen Mfazwe’, from Johannesburg stands wearing a sash that reads “2nd Prince”, ‘Lumka Stemela’, of Nyanga East looks ahead at the camera with daring and unrelenting eyes. ‘Ayanda Mqakayi’ from Cape Town, and Zanele Muholi’s self-portrait share a common goal of looking undaunted by any obstacles. Individually distinctive, but brought together by perseverance, Muholi’s intention to showcase a community that has survived, and continues to grow and thrive is highlighted by the accompanying wall of observations and experiences produced like a classroom chalkboard filled with spontaneous responses of mental anguish, despair, and triumph.
In the back room, joyful coloured images of Muholi’s friends celebrating their same sex marriages fill the space. The outcome of their hard fought struggle is palpable from the gatherings of best men in Scottish looking kilts, and women in feminine gowns and laced attire. A full screen short film of a wedding ceremony that includes a testimonial from the groom’s mother in full support of her daughter who always seemed like a man is a heartwarming gesture. Less somber than the black and white portraits, these playful pictures are ample evidence of people enjoying and living their lives, despite having to fight for their right to be.