Academic journal article Critical Arts

Violence and the Cultural Logics of Pain: Representations of Sexuality in the Work of Nicholas Hlobo and Zanele Muholi

Academic journal article Critical Arts

Violence and the Cultural Logics of Pain: Representations of Sexuality in the Work of Nicholas Hlobo and Zanele Muholi

Article excerpt


Nicholas Hlobo and Zanele Muholi have raised critical issues regarding sexual identity in patriarchal contexts since they premiered at the Michael Stevenson Gallery in 2005. Nicholas Hlobo, a sculptor and performance artist, and Zanele Muholi, a photographer and activist, explore different ways of representing sexuality--in particular, homosexuality. Hlobo investigates notions of masculinity and the practice of circumcision, while Muholi documents the existence of transgender and homosexuality in township spaces (her recent work expands to various other spaces). This article focuses on the roles that violence plays in the sexual politics represented in Hlobo and Muholi's work.

While numerous South African artists' work deals with these issues, the choice of these two practitioners in particular is based on their approaches to the ambivalence of violence (the infliction of pain) with regard to the black homosexual subject in conservative, as well as liberal, spaces. Although it can be argued that Hlobo's work deals mainly with black masculinity rather than homosexuality, his work is chiefly inferential to sexual dynamics between men and gender transformation. Central to the work of these two artists is the ambiguity of sexual identity. Hlobo and Muholi's visual imagery investigates the boundaries set by different social constructs. These set boundaries have also affected crimes against bisexual, transgender and homosexual individuals which are reaching alarming proportions. Hlobo questions the validity of structures that marginalise homosexual individuals through drawing attention to the ambivalence of certain statutes, while Muholi seeks to publicise the injustices asserted on homosexual individuals in order to demonstrate the weight of that crisis. Hlobo and Muholi not only bring these issues to light, but also highlight the dilemma inscribed in the social and political history of (South) Africa, with regard to collective and individual identities.

Keywords: hate crime, Nicholas Hlobo, pain, sexuality, violence, visibility, Zanele Muholi


Oftentimes, visual representations of sexuality carry a silent boldness that obscures compounded processes of violence. While performances of virility exhibit resistance, they also imply tacit vulnerabilities. Through the discussion of artworks such as Isisindo SamaDlozi (2006) by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, as well as photographs from Zanele Muholi's Only Half the Picture (2006), this article seeks to chart mechanisms of violence intrinsic in performances of gender. Nicholas Hlobo, a sculptor, has exhibited both locally and internationally on themes involving ambiguities of sexuality as well as the intimate spaces that engender violence. In his work, he demonstrates the fallibility of gender constructions where femininity, masculinity and alternative genders are vulnerable to, and capable of, violence. The activist and photographer Zanele Muholi has been involved in a number of organisations fighting for gay and lesbian rights. She co-founded and works for the Forum and Empowerment of Women (FEW) and is actively involved with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex (LGBTI) community (Neidhardt 2006: 95). Her documentation of black lesbians and gays is directed at destabilising a culture of silences that systematically conceals susceptibility to targeted violence. Through this documentation, Muholi reveals that township lesbians and gays are vulnerable to hate crimes.

Rhapsodies of pain

The body is a primary site from which violence can be articulated. Hlobo's Isisindo SamaDlozi (2006) (Figure 1) is connotative of dismembered male genitals as well as suspended speed-ball punching bags. The phallic object in this installation is an insertion of five small plastic conduits and white cotton in a cylindrical rubber inner-tube. Within each conduit (except the tube that is in the centre), there is a red ribbon that suggests blood. …

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