For African Dykes, Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi’s “Xana Nyilenda, Newtown, Johannesburg, 2011 Faces and Phases,” 30 x 20 inches, silver gelatin print, edition of 8. | YANCEY RICHARDSON GALLERY

Zanele Muholi’s “Xana Nyilenda, Newtown, Johannesburg, 2011 Faces and Phases,” 30 x 20 inches, silver gelatin print, edition of 8. | YANCEY RICHARDSON GALLERY

I forget sometimes how important art is, what images can do. Last week I got blown away by an exhibit in Chelsea at the Yancey Richardson Gallery. The photographer was Zanele Muholi. Her subjects were African dykes like herself. They stare out from the prints in their best ball caps and fedoras, bald heads and dreads, looking at you looking at them. Some are a little anxious about it. Some are pissed. Others have a sadness so vast behind their eyes your heart breaks for them.

Examine them closely. Too many have literal scars from life in South Africa and Zimbabwe. There's a faint white line near the mouth of one. A round scar on another's forehead like she'd been hit with a hammer. And maybe she had. South Africans haven't quite digested the post-apartheid constitution declaring queers off limits as punching bags. Women, too are verboten, though the model Reeva Steenkamp lived through several “domestic disturbances” before getting shot to death last week in the bathroom when her famous, violent boyfriend says he mistook her for an intruder.

Violence in southern Africa is endemic, a way of life, especially in poor townships where most of the photographed live. And Muholi is more than conscious of documenting a community in which “love is juxtaposed with violence.”

For Muholi, each photo is art and activism combined. The images themselves are beautiful. The political part comes when you look in their eyes and start to see them. So that's what an African lesbian looks like. An African transman. Though they don't look so different from plenty of dykes here. If you're not careful, you'll start to feel protective. There they are. Emotionally naked. An endangered human species.

Instead of feeling sorry for them or lamenting your Western privilege, I recommend exercising it on their behalf. Even if, like Muholi, African dykes are more than capable of speaking for themselves. Still, they are extra vulnerable to violence and death. They need a net to dance over. Safe spaces. Chances to hang out. To play.

In soccer-crazed Africa, a lot of them are on “football” teams, or wish they were. Zanele Muholi, instead of launching one more social services outfit, started up an all-black lesbian soccer team in 2008 in her hometown of Umlazi, Durban. She named it Thokozani Football Club after out dyke soccer player Thokozani Qwabe, who was brutally murdered in 2007 just for being a lesbian. More than a few TFC players are survivors of “corrective rape,” which were ostensibly attempts to turn them straight.

It's not just exercise they're after. Their site says, “We want to educate each other and our families, friends and communities that we exist, that we contribute to building a physically, socially, and emotionally healthy and democratic South African society, and that we deserve a life free of discrimination and violence due to homophobia.”

Muholi and her team have been getting support from another group of soccer mad grrrls in France. Last year, Les Dégommeuses decided to go beyond arranging the occasional scrimmage and launched a program they called “Foot for Love.” Working with Lesbian of Color, Paris Foot Gay,, Rosa Bonheur, and a bunch of others, they initiated a whole series of actions against homophobia during Pride Week in Paris last June.

Their biggest accomplishment was bringing over the Thokozani Football Club for an exhibition match in a big Paris stadium. They also showed Muholi's film, “Difficult Love” and held a die-in to bring attention to lesbophobia and hate crimes in South Africa, which didn't exactly come to a halt for gay pride.

The day after TFC arrived in Paris, a young dyke was shot in her own home in the Cape Town township of Nyanga. A couple of weeks before, a queer activist got his throat cut. It was another queer dead a few weeks before that. They rarely just get killed. There's usually rape of some kind, mutilation.

The only good news is that African dykes are finally getting some attention. One of Foot for Love's most notable supporters is world-class soccer player Lilian Thuram, who has been involved in fighting discrimination in soccer and recently spoke out on behalf of marriage equality in France.

Sometime next month, while the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women is holding a meeting focused on ending violence against women and girls, Les Dégommeuses, in their role as advocates for Foot for Love, are participating in an event in Paris about the double whammy of lesbophobia.

I almost can't believe it. I remember when dykes stuck to the softball fields and golf courses, potlucks and bars. And even our own clubs were always called “women's teams.” I especially remember how hard it was to get feminists to utter the word lesbian on the international stage.

Let us celebrate the art of change.

ZANELE MUHOLI | Yancey Richardson Gallery | 535 W. 22nd St., suite 3 | Through Apr. 6 | Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. |