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On the "A" w/Souleo: South African Photographer Captures the Pain and Beauty of LGBT Life

05/08/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

South Africa is celebrated for having one of the most advanced constitutions in the world. It is often cited for its inclusion of protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet that has done little to quell physically- and sexually-violent homophobic attacks. According to the Human Rights Council of South Africa, there are up to ten cases of corrective rape every week. South African visual artist Zanele Muholi understands this situation firsthand, as she has documented the experiences of black lesbian and transgender communities in her native land.

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Zanele Muholi


Despite the troubling statistics, Muholi's work presents a delicate balance of pain and joy. In the exhibition, Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence, on view at the Brooklyn Museum are eighty-seven works from various series including Faces and Phases, which addresses the hardships of identifying as LGBTI in South Africa and Weddings, which depicts joy, love, and perseverance.

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Zanele Muholi: Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi's wedding I. Kwanele Park Katlehong (2013)

"You can't show one-sided images as if it's all about pain because sometimes we find joy even when some of us are rejected from work and schools," she said. "As somebody is killed somebody else gets married. So the whole idea of negotiating space on a daily basis means a lot. Also it was important for me to say that these are human begins and members of our communities."

One of those members is Muholi's muse tuned mentee, Thembela "Terra" Dick who appears in the exhibition's Faces and Phases portrait series. "I feel empowered seeing my picture here because I am made into history with this portrait," said Dick. "It will remain here for other generations to see that we are breaking down doors."

After modeling for Muholi the two forged a bond. Muholi now mentors Dick, an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Like her mentor, Dick wants to use her images to spark conversations and initiate change for those targeted by homophobia in South Africa. And while she is grateful for her constitution she believes that the battle is more in the heart of the people than the minds.

"South Africa's constitution is great but you cannot change a man's mind that lives in poverty in a township. When they see us they don't see what others see. They will never think the way politicians are thinking. But art can get to the heart of people."

African Film Festival founder faces uncertain future

Mahen Bonetti is just about ready to call it a wrap. After twenty-five years as the founder and executive director of African Film Festival, Inc. (AFF) she is contemplating retiring from her position.

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Mahen Bonetti

"After twenty-five years it takes its toll physically and I will be sixty-years-old next year," she said. "We have retained our independence and that comes at a cost. But if this is to live past me I have to think about the future of the organization. And there are many young people who can do this."

One look at this year's robust programming line-up and it's easy to see why Bonetti is confident in the future of African cinema. Taking place May 6-12, the 22nd annual New York African Film Festival includes fifteen features and thirteen short films from Africa and the Diaspora. Nearly half of those films--including opening night's film noir Cold Harbour by Carey McKenzie--are by women filmmakers who make up the subtheme "Women in the Media." Plus according to its film archives the organization has featured over 700 films since launching the festival component in 1993.

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Still from Cold Harbour/Courtesy: African Film Festival Inc.

Even looking outside of the festival it is clear that African cinema--despite numerous challenges of financing and distribution--continues to make gains. Nigeria's $500 million film industry alone averages over a thousand titles per year and competes with Hollywood and Bollywood in revenue figures. Plus Africa Magic Go recently launched as what is being dubbed the "Hulu" of Africa, offering films and television series that U.S. viewers can stream.

And should Bonetti soon decide that now is the time to step down from her position she will do so knowing her work has not been in vain.

"When I discovered this body of work being made by people who for so long had no control over their images I was blown away. I found and discovered myself," she recalled. "I always felt if change happens on the continent or in the Diaspora it must start with us. We can validate ourselves and also be open to critique of what is right and wrong in traditional cultures and modern society. In twenty-five years that well has not dried up and the proliferation is greater. I feel like I am ready to pass the baton because there is this rich body of work still being produced. What we set out to do we've accomplished."

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The weekly column, On the "A" w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company Souleo Enterprise LLC