Visual Activism 101

A constitution is written.  Laws are enacted.  Amendments are passed.  Equal rights and equal treatment are guaranteed and bigotry and violence fade away into the distant past.  Bunnies knit rainbows out of butterfly wings and free pizza and puppies show up at everyone’s doorsteps.  Or not.  South Africa’s Constitution (adopted in 1996) prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.  In 2006, the government legalized same-sex marriage.  And each year members of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community experience discrimination, hate crimes, and violence, including over 500 (reported, more go unreported) “corrective rapes” perpetrated on lesbians each year.  Despite the progress, true equality and safety remain out of reach.

Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, South Africa in 1972.  She grew up under apartheid.  In 1991, she came out as a lesbian.  She helped found the Forem for the Empowerment of Women in 2002, a lesbian organization and a space for women to meet and organize.  Muholi began studying photography in 2003.  One year later, she had her first solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.  In 2005 she received the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts.  In 2009, Muholi graduated from Ryerson University with a MFA in Documentary Media.  That same year, she founded another organization, Inkanyiso, which facilitates LGBTQIA+ activism through the visual arts and the media.  Their mission statement is “Produce.  Educate.  Disseminate.”  Muholi has won several awards and fellowships from around the world.  She has had solo exhibits in Nigeria, Austria, Milan, London, Amsterdam, Montreal, and New York City.   Her work has been shown in group exhibitions across the globe, from Toronto to Singapore to Brazil to Mali.  In 2014, Muholi presented at the prestigious Design Indaba Conference.

MuholiPortrait

But it hasn’t been all accolades and appreciation for Muholi.  In 2009, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, left an exhibition that included Muholi’s photographs of lesbians saying it was offensive and immoral.  Three years later, Muholi’s apartment was broken into and over 20 hard drives were taken.  They contained years of her work.  Nothing else of value was taken, suggesting the theft was specifically motivated by her work and activism.  Real mature, people; that’ll stop her. *eye roll*

Muholiphoto1

So, what is so offensive about Zanele Muholi?  She is black; she is a lesbian; she is an artist; she is an activist.   Each one of those things would be cause for conservative undies to get in a bunch, but put it all together and you have a layer cake of controversy.  Her work, mostly photography and some video, focuses on the struggles of being black and LGBTQIA+ in South Africa.  Muholi stated, “You can’t change the laws without changing the images.  It is one thing to say we exist; it is another to show it.  Art is political, art is about activism.”  To instigate change, challenge prejudice, and raise awareness, Muholi creates series of photographs of people and daily life events in the black LGBTQIA+ community.  “Faces and Phases” is a series of more than 200 photographs of South African black lesbians.  They are striking, beautiful black and white portraits.  Muholi documents all aspects of LGBTQIA+ life: weddings, intimacy, funerals, hate crimes.  It is intense work.  “I have listened to so many people’s pain,” Muholi said, “and it meant I had to sleep with that pain…”  But by showing images of the community, by documenting its daily experiences, the LGBTQIA+ community is being seen.  It normalizes what is often seen as “other,” and challenges prejudices of gender, sexuality, and race.  Muholi, continues to challenge herself artistically.  She also, only recently, began to turn the camera on herself.  She found self-portraits to be intense and confrontational: “…you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.”  In these portraits she often darkens her skin tone, emphasizing her blackness and its beauty.

Muholiphoto2

Muholi continues to create and to fight for the black LGTBQIA+ community, and the LGBTQIA+ community on the whole.  And picture by picture, she is making a difference.  Zanele Muholi: visual activist and badass extraordinaire.

Advertisements

Meta Physical

The Victorian Era.  Women were bound by corsets, morality, and domesticity, stuck at home caring for their children and attending to their husbands’ needs.  Or not.  Yes, the Victorian period was stifling and oppressive for women, but there were some groundbreaking women who didn’t let it get them down.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was one of those awesome ladies.

MetaPortrait

Fuller was born in 1877 and was already creating sculpture and drawings in high school.  One of her works was chosen to be in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  She won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now the Philadelphia College of Art).  Fuller graduated and traveled to Paris in 1899 to continue her studies.  In Paris, she attended the Academie Colarossi and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  She met and became friends with W.E.B. DuBois.  Fuller also met Rodin and he told her, “my child, you are a sculptor; you have the sense of form in your fingers.”  While in Paris, she exhibited at Samuel Bing’s L’Art Nouveau Gallery and at the Paris Salon.  After kicking ass in Paris, Fuller returned to Philadelphia in 1903.  She continued her artistic studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Fuller worked in plaster and clay; most of the sculptures were also bronzed.  In 1909, Fuller met Dr. Solomon Fuller, one of the first African American psychiatrists in the United State, and they were married.  They moved to Massachusetts and Fuller built herself a studio with her own hands against her husband’s wishes.  Hell yes.  She had three sons and continued sculpting as well as doing housework and raising the kids.  So, yeah, awesome.

In 1917, she became the first African American woman to receive a United States government commission.  Fuller created 14 works for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition.  Lest anyone forget what the country was built on, the tableaux showed scenes of slaves arriving in America and the home life of black Americans in 1617.  Fuller exhibited her work at the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the Harmon Foundation Shows, and at the Making of America Exposition during the 1920s.  Apparently, Americans could not get enough of Expositions back in the day.  In 1957, Fuller was commissioned by the Afro-American Women’s Council to create 10 sculptures of famous African American women.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller died in 1968.  Her first retrospective was in 1984 at the Danforth Museum of Art.  Her work is in the collections of the Schomburg Center, Radcliffe College, the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston, as well as at the Danforth Museum of Art.  Why her work is not more widely known or in more museums’ collection is probably due to her being a woman and an African American and it’s a fucking shame.

MetaEthiopia

Fuller was incredibly spiritual and very aware of the plight of African Americans in the United States during her lifetime and throughout American history.  These issues permeate her work.  In 1914, she created Ethiopia Awakening.  This sculpture shows a woman whose legs are wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy but whose torso and head are emerging from the bindings.  It is a figure of a woman coming out of confinement and into her own personhood.  It creates a visual link to Africa, the continuing heritage of African Americans, and references the ideas of Ethiopianism.  In 1919, Fuller created a visual tribute to Mary Turner, who was lynched with three others who were suspected of planning to murder a white person.  Fuller was an artistic pioneer.  She utilized African American subjects, an aesthetic that blended African American and African styles, and addressing the racial disparities and oppression African Americans faced; and all before the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of the idea of the New Negro.  She used the link between black Africa and black America to show a rich, complex artistic and cultural heritage and to decry colonialism and racism.

MetaSkull

In 1937, Fuller made “Talking Skull” showing a man on his knees with a skull on the ground in front of him.  It is a clear depiction of the link between the past and the present, and the presence of death (or the threat of death) in African American lives.  Her work has often been called “dark” or “macabre,” and maybe it is, but it is also inspiring, proud, and complex.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was an amazing artist, a kick-ass woman, and someone who helped shape one of the most important American art movements in the 20th century.  Fuller is full-on awesome.