Unforgotten Faces – Acknowledging Black Womyn of South Africa

Re-posted with permission from the amazing blog, Black Looks.

Unforgotten Faces – Acknowledging Black Womyn of South Africa

by Zanele Muholi on August 6, 2010

Busisiwe Sigasa

For Artscape Women’s Festival 2010, Zanele Muholi and Ellen Eisenman have produced a collection of photographs that celebrate women’s lives. They recognize and honor the living as well as those who have left the planet. And they question, why does society allow some to be taken away so early and with such violence? These are Unforgotten Faces.

The artists’ collaboration began in 2008, as they began to share ideas, images, questions, and challenges. Included in the exhibit are portraits of women; in addition, Muholi and Eisenman have together created a series of stamps, acknowledging Black Womyn of South Africa, especially in honor of Busi Sigasa, Nosizwe Cekiso, Eudy Simelane, and Penny Fish . Zanele and Ellen hope that their work stimulates a discussion about hidden histories–unexamined stories that so influence many women’s daily lives. In order to honor life, let us see all of life, and to question the brutality of how many lesbians are dying.

About her portraits, Zanele Muholi has said,

“In the face of all the challenges our community encounters daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black queer visibility. It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here.

In my portraits, I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. Historically, portraits serve as memorable records for lovers, family and friends.

“The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?

“These portraits present an insider’s perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. Some of their stories gave me sleepless nights as I tried to process the struggles that were told to me. Many of the women I met had been violated and I endeavoured not to exploit them further through my work. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black today. “


Ellen Eisenman’s portraits are tributes to cultural workers–people who have committed a large part of their lives to working for progressive social and cultural change. They are from various walks of life and take up many different issues, from leading community groups to practicing the arts for social change, from organizing demonstrations to supporting youth groups. This multi-year project began in South Africa in 2009, and continues in the U.S.The goal of the work is to contribute to a larger understanding of social change and of the many different people who live their lives working for change.

At the core of any democratic society must be engaged citizens who organize politically in their own communities and who willingly and boldly cross the cultural borders that set us against each other. Otherwise, these borders between races, classes, sexualities, national boundaries, and gender expressions will increasingly fragment us into ever-smaller communities. It seems that the forces of division and against progressive social change are growing stronger and isolating us from one another. Now more than ever, we need to recognize and support those cultural workers who are deeply committed to progressive social change and who work against these dominant trends.

Text and Photographs by Zanele Muholi and Ellen Eisenman ©2010

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