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Who Wants to Silence Zanele Muholi?

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Something terrible happened in Cape Town, South Africa, on April 20. Some unknown persons broke into the studio/home of Zanele Muholi, the photo artist, and made away with virtually all her work of the past five years or so. Gone are about 20 hard drives and backup systems in which she stored countless still images and films, including irreplaceable documentaries shot in various parts of Africa are gone, along with a laptop that had even more digital files of her work. Nothing else was taken from the apartment, which she shared with her partner. So clearly, whoever pulled off the heist was after Muholi's work. But why?

Yes, she is an award-winning artist who has gained considerable international attention in recent years. However, the files taken are not in themselves works of art. So this is not like breaking into an art museum or gallery to steal original paintings (or less likely sculptures). And even her photographs are not, in fact, that expensive, yet. So, it seems to me that the thieves or whoever sent them could not have hoped that their digital haul could really compel them to buy bigger vaults in the bank. Rather, the act of dispossessing Muholi of her work must have been planned someone bent on punishing her for her work as an activist photographer.

You see, Muholi was reputed to be the first black artist in South Africa to take up the cause of the country's black lesbians and other sexual minorities. She documented the harsh lives these women (and also men) who live in the shadow of unspeakable crimes and social sanctions levied against them by friends, family, and just about anyone who did not see homosexuality as an appropriate black South African lifestyle. With her photographs she made a powerful argument about the ordinariness -- and therefore human -- life experiences of the black South African LGBTI persons and communities. And she did so with such lyrical gravitas that must have troubled those who saw the type of people who sat for her as nothing but misfits and deviants. This same combination of powerful visuality -- this cunning mix of imagery that tugs at the aesthetic sensors and supposedly taboo subjects that get the censors really upset -- reminds me of Andres Serrano's glorious photographs of the late 1980s: Serrano got U.S. Senators and the Australian Catholic Church so pissed; and the South African Minister of Culture not only walked out of an exhibition featuring Muholi's photographs in 2009, she all but accused her of anti-South African activities.

And this is what makes the April 20 theft doubly troubling. So, let me ask: Who wants to keep Muholi's work out of circulation? Who wishes to erase her work from the visual and social memory by taking her archive out of circulation? That is to say, who wants to ban her work without the use of the state's institutions -- something South Africa perfected during the age of apartheid, and which, from every indication the ruling political class today wishes to restore? Did most of the world not rejoice in 1994 when the "Rainbow Nation" was born? Did South Africa not pride itself for inventing the world's most equitable constitution in which the rights of every citizen regardless of race, gender, faith and sexuality was guaranteed? What happened? Indeed what is happening in Mandela's South Africa?

In the meantime, and just in case my suspicions about the motive for the theft of Muholi's files are wrong, next time you see her work anywhere, make sure of its provenance.

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