The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Performing gendered and queer identities 

Johannesburg Art Gallery

The Evidence of Things Not Seen, a reference in part to James Baldwin’s book of the same title, speaks to the intangible but pervasive nature of identity. Using works from the JAG collection exclusively by artists of colour, this exhibition looks at the performance of gendered and queer identities in contemporary South African art. 

Mary Sibande is a sculptor, photographer, and visual artist based in Johannesburg. Her work questions issues around representation and how to reclaim the black female body in post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa.

She often works through an alter-ego, Sophie. Although Sophie resembles the artist herself, she is symbolic - a figure that stands in to speak for femininity, blackness, labour, post-coloniality, and communities on the margin as a whole.

"My work is influenced by the women in my family who were all maids. My grandmother told me the story of my great-grandmother who had two African names but her masters couldn’t remember them. So they gave her a Christian name: they called her Elsie. I took this story" - explains Sibande

Through her alter-ego, Sophie, Sibande deconstructs the the institution of the black domestic worker - although Sibande uses the laden term ‘maid’.

The black female body is a very contested domain. It has been seen through not only the male gaze, but the gaze of the colonial white male. These female artists address some of these issues while subverting and rejecting them.

In Praça de Touros III Nandipha Mntambo rehearses the steps of a bullfighter in the abandoned Praça de Touros in Maputo, the arena where black Mozambicans once fought for the entertainment of the colonial Portuguese.

In this work called Balandzeli Mntambo uses her own body as a mold over which she shapes cow hide.

"I’ve always had a complex relationship with the politics of representation and how to image other people with honesty. Being aware of how I would like to be seen/imaged makes it easier to understand elements of how I would like to represent myself. I choose to use my own body within my work because I am exploring elements of my identity and how these impact my relationship with myself and society in general" Nandipha Mntambo

As a South African of mixed race ancestry Gabrielle Goliath often finds that her identity is ambiguous to others.

In her triptych Ek is ‘n Kimberly Coloured she portraits herself as the different ethnicities she is most often mistaken for when traveling outside South Africa, while at the same time affirming her identity through translations of the works title.

"I’ve always felt that art provides a valuable and critical vehicle for social commentary and creates necessary dialogue. As a South African female artist I feel a certain privilege and responsibility to deal with themes that speak to the experience of women in our country" Gabrielle Goliath

Tracey Rose is known for her insistence in confronting the politics of identity, including sexual, racial, and gender-based themes.

"That the work possesses a populist appeal, and, at the same time, is able to assist us in rethinking the pathology of our history, makes it all the more significant and durable" - Ashraf Jamal on The Kiss by Tracey Rose

"My work explores the theme of identity and what that means for me. It is concerned with the female experience both personal and universal" Belinda (Billie) Zangewa

"I am using my own image and body to tell my story. What could be more empowering than that?" - Belinda (Billie) Zangewa

Zanele Muholi is an artist and visual activist dedicated to increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people in South Africa.

Although South Africa's post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country in the world, and the first - and, to date, only - in Africa, to legalise same-sex marriage, prejudice is still entrenched in most communities outside the major cities.

Portrait of member of the queer community Thembi Nyoka. Part of Zanele Muholi's series Faces and Phases, documenting the lives of black lesbians and non-conforming individuals in South Africa.

Portrait of Tumi Mokgosi living in a neighbourhood of Johannesburg called Yeoville.

"Every individual in my photographs has her own or his own story to tell. But sadly we come from spaces in which most black people never had that opportunity. If they had it at all, their voices were told by other people. So there’s the whole thing of being spoken for” - said Muholi in a recent interview with Bim Adewunmi.

Portrait of Nomonde Mbusi, a member of the queer community in Berea, Johannesburg.

Johannesburg based artist Nicholas Hlobo has built up a distinctive body of work that engages the viewer in conversations about sexual identity, masculinity and ethnicity.

"Gay men have always reserved some space for fun and celebration of who they are. Drag queens, celebrated in Imtyibilizi xa yomile, do the best work with regards to celebrating difference and showing pride in being the minority. However, to some this doesn't come easy - the performance becomes a weapon through which they fight the heavy baggage that comes with being gay" Nicholas Hlobo

Credits: Story

Images from Zanele Muholi's series Faces and Phases:
© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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