By Liona Robyn Nyariri
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence
Brooklyn Museum, New York
1 May – 1 November 2015
also published on inkanyiso.org
I’m standing on the gallery floor at the Brooklyn Museum, looking down into a transparent glass coffin that lies at my feet. Inside the coffin sits a portrait of Zanele Muholi resting on a bed of white cotton. A vibrant bright assemblage of flowers lies on top of the coffin – it reminds me of a scene from Snow White, the Brothers Grimm fairytale story about a Princess whose beauty makes her wicked stepmother want her dead.
Snow White with hair dark as ebony, skin white as snow and lips red as blood. Her wicked stepmother, the Queen, looks into a magical mirror everyday and asks the question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in this realm is the fairest of all?”
And each time the mirror responds, “You, my Queen, are the fairest of all.”
Things continue this way and the evil Queen remains content, until one day, when Snow White has ripened to puberty. The Queen looks into her mirror and asks once more: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in this realm is the fairest of all?”
This time the mirror responds, “You, my queen, may have beauty quite rare, but Snow White is a thousand times more fair.”
Angered and enraged, the Queen devises a plan to get rid of Snow White and enlists the help of a Huntsman. She tells the Huntsman to take Snow White into the forest to kill her. As proof, she asks the Huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart and bring it back to her. The Huntsman takes Snow White into the woods, but is so moved by her beauty and does not kill her. Instead, he lets her go. The stepmother discovers what the Huntsman has done and plots to kill Snow White herself.
Disguised as a harmless well-meaning old woman, bearing a poisoned apple – the Queen enters the forest and offers the fruit to an unsuspecting Snow White. Snow White takes a bite of the poisoned apple and falls to the ground – not quite dead, but almost. Her body is placed in a glass coffin for all to see. Then one day a handsome Prince stumbles upon her coffin and falls in love with Snow White. He opens the coffin and kisses her lips. With this kiss, Snow White is brought back to life. Her and the Prince get married and live happily ever after.
I look into Muholi’s coffin and think about the kiss of life that will bring back the dead, the sorrowful, the ghosts that haunt – trapped on earth as fading lights waiting for their murderers to be called to judgment.
What bold, beautiful, dickstrapping, butch bearing, pussy lusting, woman to woman loving, haughty silver tongued swagging Prince/ss, will deliver the elixir of life; the warm breath of lips on lips and the reverberation of pulse, heartbeat?
The living and the dead have come together under one roof in Muholi’s exhibition, Isibonelo/Evidence and in this marks the twofold, 1+1=2, it takes two, two sides and then the truth, two people and two women, two codes, too assimilated and to be different, to equality, towards tolerance. Muholi presents the names of all the LGBTQI people who have been murdered in South Africa in the form of a graph. Here she gives a detailed description of who they are and how they were killed and it shows what happened to their murderers. Most of their murderers where not convicted or received short jail time. Each year the number of murdered LGBTQI people increases and this is shown on the graph.
These beauties were killed because of who they were and how they expressed themselves and challenged “normal” beauty and sexuality. The beauty that threatened others and the beauty for which the Huntsman was sent to kill. Muholi calls for us – the viewers to bear witness, to acknowledge, to know, to not turn away, to be confronted by these ghosts. Ghosts that now live through and in an archive. An archive that documents their struggles, their pains, joys, humanity.
This archive was created out of necessity, a necessity with the urgency to maintain life. In Jacques Derrida’s piece, Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression, he describes the need and urgency to archive as being symptomatic of the death drive.
For Derrida, a key element in the archive is its ability to give over into the care, the custody of another. It is like a passing down of a precious object, a precious memory, a family heirloom. The passing down of the archive into the arms of another – a woman, a queer, a lesbian, a transgendered person – “assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression.”
These needs conflated with urgency create an anxious compulsion, a panic, a fear of amnesia – forgetting, disappearing, non-existence. The archive is created out of the haunting of the death drive, the fear of being chased, raped, stoned and killed. The death drive is about an internal self-destruction, but Muholi’s archive, our archive, our queer archive, is being chased by the Huntsman. An external force sent to cut out its heart, our hearts, heartbeat, pulse. Our archive is being chased constantly.
The poet, Sindiwe Magona, writes in her poem, Please, Take Photographs!:
Go to the nearest or cheapest electronic goods store
And there, buy cameras by the score.
Hurry! Go! Go! Go!
Then go home; gather your family and
Take photographs of them all
Especially the children; especially, the young,
Hurry! Take photos of them all
Before it is too late…
…Please hurry! Take photographs of all the children, now!
Take photos, for tomorrow they will be gone.
Take photos! Take photos of the children…
Children who will not see thirty.
Children who will never…grow…old.
There is a sense of urgency, panic, hurriedness, running through the forest as the Huntsman chases us – Run, run, run! And so Muholi photographs with the urgency to stay alive, to stay intact, to not die, to not turn into a ghost, to exist amongst the living.
The living, oh how they live! How they celebrate and have joy and love. My gaze shifted from the coffin and towards a wedding video of Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi. The footage revealed a happy couple as they took those sacred vowels and prepared to live their fairytale. There was dancing and singing, laughter, gratitude, tears of joy/sadness.
Her, adorned in a dress that was peach on the bust with white lace over it and a white bell shaped skirt fit for a Princess/Prince. The high femme with her carefully applied makeup, beautiful. Finished off with a pearl necklace and pearls and diamante shaped flowers in her interracially braided hair. Them, they, he, her looking dapper in a fitted grey suite with a black collar. Crisp white shirt complete with a tie. Her Prince. The celebration continued and went through some ceremonial and traditional rituals, clothes/costume changes, from western wedding wear to traditional Zulu wear. The second 2fold – assimilation and difference, to equality, towards tolerance.
The Prince has come to save Snow White and give her the kiss of life. As she wakes up, it is love at first sight. Snow White and the Prince get married and live happily ever after. He and she live happily every after. They and them live happily ever after. Her and she, he and him live happily – ever – after?
The proud mother says in her speech to the happy couple and the happy crowd, “my son is not a lesbian…He is my son…”
Just as I thought the ghosts, my haunting had settled down, a cold creep, a shudder surfaces. The urgency regurgitates, this time confused by societies demands. Wanting to fit in, to belong, to survive, yet wanting to be different.
In his essay, Zanele Muholi Elements of Survival, Raél Jero Salley says that in Muholi’s work there is a “twin impulse of negotiation: a desire for assimilation into mainstream society and internal diversification within LGBTI communities…there is a conflicting relationship.”
This conflict leads me to ask the following question – where does transformation and acceptance happen?
By the mother calling her child “he/son”; does transformation happen in the word, the signifier?
Does the mother expand the meaning of what “he/son” means, allowing for a more diversified gender definition in the words “he/son.” Or, does transformation happen not in the word, but in the thing that the word refers to?
In other words, must the mother’s child become the word as it is socially understood and accepted?
Must they become “he/son, her son?”
Does the Huntsman hunt us, because we are so different from him, or does he hunt us, because we look like him?
We challenge his existence and who he is and so he projects his own self-hating psych onto us – we are the thing he hates, we are the thing the evil Queen hates.
The urgency to normalize, assimilate, the urgency to not be killed – So run Snow White, Snow Black, so Black – so black and blue from the bruises, inside and outside her black body.
The black body always seems to be running throughout the globe. Running from accusation and being chased by difference with injustices that mark a great sense of indifference. From South Africa to Brooklyn, New York, USA. Muholi brings this to our attention by installing police barricades in the room where the Faces and Phases portrait series is hung. The cold steel barricades are placed lengthwise in the room, dividing it into two. The USA is marked by strong violence or police brutality towards black bodies.
We can think of Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Miriam Carey, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and so many more black people who have been killed by the police as well Transgendered people who are killed – Hunted and killed, to be different, too assimilated, too much – policing, policy making.
The barricades made the room seem smaller, congested, tight – #Icantbreath.
“I can’t breath!” Screamed Eric Garner as he was being choked to death by the police officer. I can’t breath, I’m so tired of running – I’m out of breath from being chased.
This phrase, “I can’t breath,” has become a poignant phrase for the Black Lives Matter movement. It describes a state of crises and state of emergency as black bodies continue to die and be killed for being who they are. For showing their, our beauty to the world.
Metaphorically, the barricades brought up all these issues and spoke to what they intended to, but visually, they felt overstated. The conversation of black bodies dying on a global scale was/is already embedded in Muholi’s work and the conversation would have been had without the barricades. The barricades cut the space and disrupted/distracted the space and I could not fully enjoy viewing the portraits from Faces and Phases in their entirety.
Nevertheless – Portraits on a wall, like mirrors on a wall – “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the finest of them all?”
Moreover, as I walked past them, each one of them replied, “I am! I am! I am!”
With confidence, irresistibility, sexiness – defiant. As if looking into the eyes of the Huntsman and saying, “You will see me for what I am, and what I am before anything else, is a person – a human being.”
 Jack Zipes, trans., The Complete Fairy Tales Of The Brothers Grimm (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 181-188
 The death drive, aggression drive or destruction drive as conceived by Sigmund Freud in his book, Beyond The Pleasure Principle. The death drive is in constant antagonism between Eros (the sexual desire that is linked to creation of life, productivity and construction) and Thanatos (death, destruction). In Freudian terms it explains the reason why human beings return to trauma and the need to return to quiescence.
 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 11.
 Zanele Muholi, Faces + Phases 2006 -14 (South Africa: Steidl and The Water Collection, 2014), 5-6
 Raél Jero Salley, “Zanele Muholi Elements of Survival,” African Arts, Gender and South African Art 45 (2012): 4, accessed May 3, 2015, doi:10.1162/AFAR_a_00028