What is art, after all? To my mind art is a socio-political reflection of the place and times in which we live.
The exhibition at Constitution Hill, ‘Innovative Women’ and the photographic exhibition by Zanele Muholi was all over the papers, and not only our SA papers; also the English ones. The exhibition at Constitution Hill was a selection of large framed photographs, a tastefully executed depiction of delicately lit women’s bodies decoratively entwined. It is very relevant in a time when lesbian women are being subjected to so much violence and offered absolutely no protection.
The exhibition caused quite a furore. Perhaps International Women’s Day had awakened the controversy peddlers. The Minister of Art and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, called it a ‘crude misrepresentation of women’. The Artist and those who appreciate its intention find it rather to be a lovely representation of the reality of lesbian women’s relationships; something quite beautiful that was beautifully, sensitively executed.
The Minister, apparently said that the exhibition “Stereotypes Black Women”. What is a stereotype? Isn’t it something that channels people into defined social roles and disallows them the prospect of developing as their destiny dictates? Does this work not, rather, liberate black lesbians from the stereotype? Does it not liberate them into the newly afforded freedom of a constitution that enshrines their right to love whomsoever they choose, their right to be freely expressive with their same sex partners and their right to break the rules of their patriarchal traditions and marry another woman; the woman of their dreams?
There is a great deal of talk about the need for debate on ‘where to draw the line’. The thing about art, though, is that it is an uninhibited phenomenon which cannot be bound by lines. The artist challenges the boundaries. The artist expresses freely from her soul and accepts that not everyone will get it. For those who don’t get it, art should provoke debate; but art should never be shut down.
Was this exhibition intended to offend? I think not. Its intention, I think was a backlash against those who say that lesbianism is a thing of shame, or is unnatural or sordid or whatever stupid, ignorant things they say.
Art should elicit a response for it to be relevant. The stronger the response, the more kudos to the artist. Lesbian art, perhaps should elicit a louder response because the need for the understanding and protection of lesbians by South African society is so urgent.
Many women’s art exhibitions have pushed the envelope. There was the conceptual piece by Gina Pane in the 1970’s which was simply menstrual blood on a piece of cotton wool which had been preserved for a year – now, over 30 years later it makes a powerful feminist statement to many, while being incomprehensible and distasteful to many others. It’s art.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s Abandon and Two Girlfriends, both beautiful paintings of women in lesbian embrace from the 18th Century were at the time considered to be beyond risqué. There is a large collection of Lautrec’s paintings of lesbian women. They are delightful.
You may be familiar with 17th century Shunga art from Japan. These paintings and sketches depict erotically explicit sexual encounters, many of which are women with women. They were once banned from public viewing. They are incredibly beautiful. I’d welcome an exhibition of those in South Africa. I’d rather see those than Salvador Dali’s disturbingly misogynistic surreal women. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon caused a bit of a whirling stir at the beginning of the 20th century. And today, in South Africa it is the turn of Zanele Muholi to shake things up.
There was a time when to show the graceful truth of sexuality and sensuality was considered something shameful, to be hidden. But we are a decade into the 21st Century. That time is behind us. Today our sexuality, whether lesbian, gay or heterosexual deserves to be appreciated and openly celebrated.
Zanele Muholi’s work charmingly rescues all women, whether lesbian or not, from the disgusting reality of constant brutality that women face, the ceaseless violation of women’s bodies, the merciless ignorance of ‘corrective rape’, the vile exploitation of pornography and viciously judgemental rejection from those who will not accept nonconformity. It releases lesbian women to take back their power to define themselves as beautiful and to decide for themselves what that beauty is and how it should be expressed.
Minister Lulu Xingwana is a heroin of the struggle. She fought for liberation and the rights of all women. However, The Minister has been done a disservice. She is a politician, and activist. She is a highly qualified woman but her background is not in the arts, it is in economics and rural development. Her concern has never been learning to tell Turner from Constable, or Gauguin from Van Gogh, or exploring the history of feminist art.
What none of our Presidents have ever got right is that when they appoint a Minister of Arts and Culture, they should, in future, find someone who has a background and interest in arts and culture.