What does it mean for a woman to pick up a camera and point it at herself, or at another woman? Is there something unique to be found behind the lens, in the gaze of the female photographer?
Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze is an ambitious new book that sets out, if not to resolve this question, then to open it up, to unfold it through the exercise of prolonged looking. Over a year and a half, arts journalist Charlotte Jansen (who is, full disclosure, a former editor of this publication) interviewed 40 female artists from 17 countries who are making photographs of women today.
With works largely spanning the last five years, Girl on Girl is not an exhaustive or historical anthology. Instead, it’s a contemporary register of a unique moment and image economy, one in which we are seeing—or at least liking, commenting on, sharing, or swiping past—more images than ever before. And more than ever before, these images have been made by women.
In her candid introduction, Jansen writes about “learning to look at women” at a time when the images we typically see of women are much more complicated than the circumstances in which we view them: ads, magazine covers, social media. She writes:
Photographs taken by women do not only exist as a counterpoint to the male narrative. A photograph is an impulse—and challenge—to enquire, not a representation of truth. More often than not, I find that the photographs of women by women I see point me back to my own prejudice and misconceptions. Thanks to the generosity of the photographers on these pages, I had the chance to question my viewing habits and dig below the spectacle of surface.
Over nearly 200 well-illustrated pages, Jansen asks us to consider a broad catalogue of photography: we find selfies and self-portraits; works that embrace overt feminism (and #feminism), and others that eschew it entirely; there’s fashion, glam, and beauty; there are formal exercises, post-internet investigations, conceptual and documentary undertakings; there’s humor, even horror! What Jansen’s book smartly makes clear is that there is no singular female gaze. And it would be unfair to assume there were: why would the photographic output of 40 women be anything other than 40 unique practices?
“Girl on Girl,” writes Jansen, “is ultimately a meditation on the agency women are taking over the images that are made of them.”
In anticipation of the U.S. book launch on April 18th, we’re sharing the first interview in Girl on Girl. For South African photographer Zanele Muholi, the stakes of visibility and representation of women—particularly black, lesbian, queer, and transgender women—are high. From Muholi’s gaze to ours, the art of photography, and the art of looking itself, can be a life-affirming act.
ZANELE MUHOLI: A LIVING ARCHIVE
“It’s about claiming the spaces, taking back power, owning our voices and our selves and our bodies, without fear of being judged.”
Zanele Muholi, Katlego mashiloane and Noshipo Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007
In autumn 2016, I was walking around the exhibition Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, the most significant museum survey of the award-winning artist’s work to date. A young boy was there visiting with his mother. I watched him put the headphones on and stare up at the screen that was showing Muholi’s 2012 video Being Scene, depicting blurry footage of bodies—lesbian couples, including Muholi and her long-term girlfriend—making love. I looked at his mother, who shrugged and laughed. The was probably the boy’s first encounter with sex, and it was an interracial, lesbian couple. It was a rare moment in which I realized how art can shift our perceptions of gender, sexuality and identity. “I am hoping to break down those notions around what is to be seen and what is not,” said Muholi in an interview about the exhibition at the time. “I want to encourage young artists to think of photography as a possibility, as work—to think of art for consciousness, and in turn, museums as spaces where we can carve a new dialogue that favours us.”
Zanele Muholi, Beloved 1, 2005
Photography in South Africa has long been intertwined with its political turbulence, and Muholi, the first black, gay, South African photographer to make a significant space in the country’s cultural history with her work, is part of a legacy of photographers who have challenged their reality from the inside, from South Africa’s first black photographer, Ernest Cole, to David Goldblatt, George Hallett and Peter Maguabane. In post-apartheid South Africa, however, inequalities persist.
With a background in journalism and activism for women’s empowerment, in 2006 Muholi embarked on her best-known work to date, the ongoing project Faces and Phases, photographing members of the LGBTI community she belongs to, in townships of South Africa and the African diaspora. As an active, involved member of this community, Muholi is not distanced from her subjects: over the years, Muholi has returned to shoot follow-ups of them—an affirmation in a place where black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are persecuted.
Zanele Muholi, Xana Nyilenda, Los Angeles, 2013
To the outsider, what is striking about Faces and Phases, made up of more than 250 portraits, is not only the content of the images but also their quantity: this living archive of women has a powerful presence that contradicts the pandemic belief that being gay is un-African. Muholi explains: “It’s about claiming the spaces, taking back power, owning our voices and our selves and our bodies, without fear of being judged. Saying that we are here, without fear of being displaced.”
South African constitutionally has the most liberal attitude towards homosexuality on the African continent—same-sex marriage is legal, and anti-discrimination laws exist—yet brutal violence, corrective rape and murder are a daily reality for LGBTI people, and Muholi raises these tragic failures against her people through her work. Each portrait represents a different story—a struggle and a triumph—but together they are part of a powerful collective force. Muholi’s work is firmly rooted in the local, and her perspective of the situation she is living in, here and now. Yet a portrait in itself does not tell us the complexity of its subject’s story. What we see first, and foremost, in Muholi’s work, is the humanity common to all women, irrespective of their sexuality, gender or race. For Muholi, as a visual activist, photographs can change our world.
Zanele Muholi, ZaVa III, Paris, 2013
Charlotte Jansen is an arts and culture journalist and editor-at-large at Elephant magazine.
From Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (April 2017). Reprinted with permission of Laurence King Publishing.
—The ArtSlant Team
(Image at top: Zanele Muholi, Zinzi and Tozama II Mowbray, 2010. All images: From Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (2017) by Charlotte Jansen. Used with permission of Laurence King Publishing.)
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