South African photographer Zanele Muholi brings images from ‘Buelahs,’ a series of portraits of openly gay young men to WCMA.
South African photographer Zanele Muholi brings images from ‘Buelahs,’ a series of portraits of openly gay young men to WCMA. (Photos by Zanele Muholi / Courtesy of WCMA)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Two young women stand close together. They are bare to the shoulder, and they touch at the shoulders. They stand in each other's arms.

The image holds a feeling of something new. They seem absorbed in each other, feeling their way. It brings a powerful sense of new love, the first conversations and touches and confusion of people beginning to learn each other.

They may feel only the natural high of loving. They may tremble, open and relaxed. They may feel afraid because they have seen friends die for feeling this way.

These two beautiful black lesbian women stand quietly in a series of photographs by south African photogrpaher Zanele Muholi, now on display at the Williams College Museum of Art.

In South Africa, as in the U.S., women are killed for falling in love.

Muholi has lost friends. She flew into a snow storm last week to visit Williams College and to tell their stories.

Maurita N. Poole, who has curated the show for WCMA with Muholi, said Williams students asked for Muholi to come, and Poole wanted Muholi's work to come with her.

The series that opens Muholi's show, "Faces and phases" began with a friend of Muholi's, Busi Sigasa, a poet and a survivor of "curative rape" -- she was attacked twice by men who claimed assault would "cure" her of being a lesbian.

She was 25 when she died, Muholi said.

With Sigasa's photograph, Muholi began a photographic archive of the lives of lesbians and transgendered people around her. The series is now in its eighth year, she said.

Many of these women have suffered hate crimes.

Some have been killed -- and some, like Sigasa, have died from HIV, after an assault, a rape, gave them the disease. Some have made local headlines, Muholi said, and some have died with very little notice in her country or outside it.

And some live now in Johannesburg, in Capetown, or in Durban, knowing their friends have died. They could wake up tomorrow to learn that someone they love has been stabbed and her body thrown away. They could be attacked.

"It has not been easy for many of them to survive," she said.

They live in a democratic space, under a constitution meant to protect them. They have been silenced in a space meant to be open and independent, she said, since the end of Apartheid.

"When you live in that space, you cannot sit and relax and say ‘it has nothing to do with me,' " she said.

She chooses to live and to live and to confront the people who would attack her for it.

"Sometimes you don't have the choice. You are forced to live regardless. You cannot allow fear to rule your life," she said. "You cannot be down and defeated. You have to engage -- say ‘look at me. I'm here. Feel me as I'm filling the room with my presence."

She has photographed women who are living with fear, and they are living. Something in their faces and bodies, an innocence and an arrogance in the way they stand and look back at the people looking at them, catches the viewer off balance, she said. She feels their eyes draw her as she looks through her camera lens.

"It haunts me," Muholi said. "When I photograph someone, I feel that shot as well, those penetrating eyes."

She has gathered images of more than 200 women, often outdoors, in public spaces, in the towns and cities where they live and work -- to claim those spaces, Muholi said.

"We are a part of them inside and out," she said. "You need fresh air, to breathe and exhale and express yourself freely."

So she has taken most of these photographs outside.

She has taken them in her home city and in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda and Botswana, and one in Williamstown.

She wants these women to tell their own stories.

"Each has her own story," she said. ‘This is a living archive. They were once there, and we cannot erase them."

She also wants to tell these stories for young people trying to find their own way to be who they are in a hostile world. In her "Being" series, she shows couples together, in intimacy and wonder.

"These intimacies have been going on a long time," she said. "I want to teach what I have never been taught to become. There is no guide that says this is how you should make love to another woman -- you never know what to do."

And so she shows people "being young and butch and proud -- being young and butch or femme and fearng for the unknown," to give them a way to see their own beauty.

Meeting people, drawing close to them for the length of a photograph, making friends, has made her more proud than ever of her own life and of her work.

"It's important to start caring," she said, "and to take care of those who take care of us. The more I photograph people, the more I respect them. I want to do more, see more, learn more. I want to say ‘if only you knew how people appreciate you' -- I want to say to every young black child, ‘dig deep into your histories and take pride in yourself --because you matter.' "

If you go ...

What: Photographs by South African photographer Zanele Muholi: ‘Faces and Phases,' ‘Being' and ‘Buelahs'

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown

When: Through April 27

Admission: Free

Information: wcma.williams.edu

Inkanyiso, a media collective Zanele founded in 2009 to show black queer life in South Africa: inkanyiso.org

Blog post by a Williams alum, Bridget Ngcobo ‘12: inkanyiso.
org/2014/02/01/2014-jan-29-south-africas-new-mourning