Happy 45th birthday to Zanele Muholi! The South
African photographer, visual artist, and LGBT activist was born on this day in
Self portrait from SOMNYAMA NGONYAMA by Zanele Muholi, 2015 (x).
Zanele Muholi was born on July 19, 1972 in Umlazi, Durban
and was the fifth and youngest child born to Ashwell Tanji Banda Muholi and
Bester Muholi. After spending her childhood in Umlazi, she then moved to
Johannesburg to study Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in
2003. Her first solo exhibition was given a year later at the Johannesburg Art
Gallery. The buzz following her first solo show eventually allowed Zanele to
attend Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, where she received her MFA in
Documentary Media in 2009. Her thesis made a big splash in the LGBT art world,
as Zanele constructed a visual map of black lesbian identity in post-Apartheid
Zanele describes herself as “a visual activist dedicated to
increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex
people.” Her main goal in her art is to capture the history of African LGBT
people and community for future generations. Before she left for school in
Canada, Zanele had worked for the online magazine Behind the Mask as a photographer and journalist, and had
co-founded Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), which was a meeting ground
for black lesbians in South Africa to come, vent, and feel safe. Returning back to
South Africa in 2009, she founded a non-profit organization called Inkanyiso,
which focused on visual activism and capturing African LGBT people’s lives and
stories. In 2010, Zanele helped to direct the documentary Difficult Love, which was shown in South Africa, America, and
Today, Zanele is an Honorary Professor in video and
photography at University of the Arts Bremen in Bremen, Germany and her work
has been shown everywhere from the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town, to
the Singapore International Arts Festival, to the Brooklyn Museum in New York
Born on this day in 1898, the photographer Berenice Abbott
was at the center of lesbian society throughout the early 20th century
and rubbed elbows with the likes of Janet Flanner, Thelma Wood, and Else von
Freytag-Loringhoven and made a name for herself with her architectural photography of New York City in the early 1930s.
Berenice Abbott photographed by her friend Walker Evans in 1930 (x).
Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17,
1898. She was raised in a working-class household by a single mother, Lillian
Alice Bunn, and recalled having had an unhappy childhood. She fled home to study
journalism at Ohio State University as soon as she graduated high school, but eventually
became disenchanted with academia and ran away again – this time to New York
City – after only a year at the university. In New York, Berenice found a love
for sculpture and sought to make a career out of it, but in the meantime she
was only able to make money by working as a dark room assistant, a waitress,
and even by acting in minor roles at The Famous Provincetown Playhouse. In
1921, Berenice had once again grown tired of her surroundings and purchased a
one-way ticket to the city of Paris. It was there where she met and befriended
the man who would change her life: incomparable photographer Man Ray who found
the plucky, eager dark room assistant he was looking for in Berenice.
Berenice’s self-portraits from throughout the years show her sporting her signature short hairstyle and butch fashion sense (x).
And thus began Berenice Abbott’s photography career, her
dreams of being a sculptor long forgotten. She would later recall, “I took to
photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.“
With Man Ray allowing her to use his studio in Montparnasse for her own work, Berenice specialized in taking portraits of all the big names in Parisian
society and her work began to be shown at the popular “"Au
Sacre du Printemps.” Her subjects included everyone from the popular authors Jean Cocteau and James Joyce to her own close friends from the lesbian salons of the day, Jane Heap, Janet
Marie Laurencin, and many others. Her friend Sylvia Beach once wrote that “To be ‘done’
by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody.”
While in Paris, Berenice took many portraits of her lesbian socialite friends, including (from left to right) Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim, and Solita Solano (x).
In 1929, Berenice took a trip back to New York City with the
intention of finding a publisher for her photograph collection and then
returning to Paris, but fate had other plans. With her new artistic mind,
Berenice became entranced by the cityscape of New York City and immediately
began the project that would make her career in America – Changing New York. For almost 6 years, Berenice used a Century
Universal camera, which produced large format 8 x 10 inch negatives, to capture
the everyday life of both work and play of the people of New York. The project
eventually evolved into a sociological study and she began to be funded by
Federal Art Project to continue her work. Today, Changing New York can be seen in its entirety at The Museum of the
City of New York.
One of Berenice’s iconic photos from Changing New York; Waterfront, South Street, October 25th, 1935 (x).
In her later years, Berenice began to experience lung
problems and so she and her partner, the art critic Elizabeth McCausland who
she had lived with for over 30 years, decided to move and settle down in the
small town of Blanchard, Maine. She practiced photography until her
death on December 9, 1991; her last collection ever published was A Portrait of Maine in 1968 and, at the
time of her death, there was a documentary about her life in the works. In her
last interview for Berenice Abbott: A
View of the 20th Century, Berenice says, “The world doesn’t like
independent women. Why? I don’t know, but I also don’t care.”
On this day in 1853, the artist Rosa Bonheur’s greatest
masterpiece, The Horse Fair, was
first exhibited to the public at the Paris Salon. Now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting symbolizes the peak of the lesbian artist’s career.
After making its debut, The Horse Fair was shown across Europe and America and was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1887 (x).
Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France
to family of socialist artists; her father was a notable portrait painter
and, although she died when Rosa was just eleven-years-old, her mother was
a piano teacher. Growing up in a Christian-socialist church called Saint-Simonianism,
both Rosa and her younger siblings were raised under a liberal ideology that
questioned women’s place in society and put less importance on marriage in the lives of women. This influence as well as the
general Bohemian quality of Parisian society perhaps gave Rosa the foundation
she needed to later on to live freely as her artsy lesbian self.
Self Portrait by Rosa Bonheur, painted in 1857 (x).
She was sent to school in Paris at a young age and began
training to be a seamstress, but after Rosa’s teachers kept suspending her and
claiming that she was too much of a disruptive force in the classroom, her
father eventually pulled her out of school and began training her to be a painter. Rosa was
commissioned by the French government for her first professional piece in 1849;
the result was Ploughing in the Nivernais.
Her largest and most popular piece, The
Horse Fair, was completed in 1855, although the public was given a sneak preview
of the work at the Paris Salon of 1853. The painting is eight feet high by
sixteen feet wide and shows Paris’s famous horse market with the unmistakable Pitié-Salpêtrière
Hospital in the background. The Horse
Fair was the piece that put Rosa’s name on the map and allowed her to
travel across Europe to different exhibitions – one such exhibition even
garnered the audience of Queen Victoria of England.
Aside from her artistic legacy, Rosa also paved the way for
gender-nonconforming women to live freely in France when she requested and was
granted a permit from the Paris police that allowed her to wear pants in
public, which was technically illegal at the time. For this reason, she is often
dubbed one of the revolutionary “New Women” of the 19th century who began
the work of making pants an acceptable fashion choice for women. Rosa also
directly defied the mores of her time by being in what would now be
considered a polyamorous relationship with two women, Nathalie Micas and Anna
Klumpke. When she died on May 22, 1899 at the age of 77, Rosa was buried along
with Nathalie at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; Anna joined them as well when she passed away in 1942.
The U.S. Book of the Month Club is an influential company
that has singlehandedly skyrocketed novels and authors from obscurity to
historical stardom ever since its creation in 1929. The very first book of the
month, chosen on this day in 1929, was Lolly
Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Although the book title has become
iconic, the lesbian communist author behind it has been forgotten by history…for
maybe not so suspicious reasons.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s most widely read novel, Lolly Willowes, was first published in 1926 (x).
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born at Harrow on the Hill,
Middlesex on December 3, 1893. Her father was a prestigious historian and she
enjoyed a happy childhood until his death in 1916. Sylvia then moved to London
to work in a munitions factory, where she would remain throughout the first
World War. While living in London, Sylvia became close friends with the “Bright
Young Things” – a group of starving artists/gay bohemians who
bopped around London throughout the 1920s. It was during this post-WWI era when
Sylvia also met the love of her life, Valentine Ackland. Sylvia was a novelist,
Valentine was a poet, and together the two were a literary power couple. In
response to the rapidly growing popularity of fascism across Europe in the
1930s, both Sylvia and Valentine became members of the Communist Party. It wasn’t
until after Valentine’s death that Sylvia would become disenchanted with the
Party. Sylvia herself died on May 1, 1978 at the age of 84.
Sylvia is seen sporting her signature look of bobbed hair and bottle-eyed glasses; the only thing missing would be a cigarette dangling from her fingers or one of her beloved cats by her side (x).
Although Lolly Willowes
was hardly Sylvia’s first shot at writing a book (she had been writing since
she was a little girl), it was undeniably her biggest success. The book tells
the story of an unmarried middle aged woman – known as a spinster in the early
twentieth century, probably known as a lesbian in 2017 – and how she escapes to
the countryside, stops contacting her family, and starts practicing witchcraft.
For a book that was recommended by the Book of the Month Club to the entirety
of the American people, Lolly Willowes
is quite the queer satire, openly mocking gender roles and marriage mores of
the early 1900s.
On this day in 1866, the influential lesbian photographer
and suffragist, Marie Høeg, was born in Langesund, Norway.
In a photo found in Marie Høeg’s private collection decades after her death, the Norwegian photographer smirks for the camera (x).
Before the 1980s, Marie was simply remembered as one of many
women who were trying their best to eek out an independent life in the brave,
new world of the nineteenth century; she was a member of the Women’s Rights
Movement, she was a suffragist, and she owned her photography studio
is Oslo. However, in the mid-1980s, an old box marked “Private” would change Marie
Høeg’s legacy forever. Inside the box were dozens of images of Marie and her “business
partner” (read: life partner) Bolette Berg, dressing in men’s clothing, wearing
fake mustaches, and just generally being silly with each other. All 440
photographs that were found in the women’s private collection are now on display at Preus Museum, but you can find an array of them here!
Marie and Bolette mocked gender roles in their photography, which often featured their dog Tuss (can you spot him?) (x).
Marie first studied photography in Brevik. After completing
an apprenticeship, she moved to Finland briefly where she was first introduced to
the concept of feminism and became a passionate member of the Women’s Right
Movement. The details on how Marie met her eventual partner, Bolette Berg, are
unclear, but in 1895, the two moved back to Norway together and set up shop. They
owned a photography studio called Berg & Høeg, which also functioned as a hub
for feminists and suffragists to meet and discuss their ideas. Marie and
Bolette also stated the publishing company, Berg og Høghs Kunstforlag A.S.,
later on in life. Marie passed away on February 22, 1949, but today she is
remembered as the innovative and carefree lesbian artist she truly was.
Joan Baez performing in Hamburg, 1973. By Heinrich Klaffs, originally via Flicker. [black-and-white photograph, portrait of Joan Baez playing the guitar and singing in front of a mic.]
Joan Baez is the folk singer legend who enchanted our ears in the 60s and 70s, the activist whose voice Martin Luther King described as that of an angel – a voice that helped her fight against racism, wars, homophobia… And today we celebrate Joanie turning 76! Last year she regaled us with a star-studded concert for her 75th birthday, featuring Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, David Crosby, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, Indigo Girls (just to cite a few).
Nowadays, people point out that her high notes aren’t quite up there, that her voice is sometimes grainy, but you could see, and hear, that she stil has it! She was having fun, and took great pleasure as always in sharing her love of singing with her peers and her public.
Performing Diamonds and Rust with friend Judy Collins, on her 2016 birthday concert
I, for one, do enjoy her early songs, but completely fell in love with her latest recordings, with her deeply moving, slightly rough voice, deeper and full of experience. If you haven’t listened to her lately, I urge you to do so.
Joan Baez was born on the 9th of January 1941 in New York, from a Mexican father and a mother born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in the US. She spent some of her childhood in Redlands, California, where she was marginalised at school both by ‘Anglos’ children for her name and darker skin, and by Mexicans children for the fact that she couldn’t speak Spanish at the time. The experience left her with an aspiration for social justice, and the desire to shine in her very own way – she would become a talented artist, and started working on that beautiful voice with its distinctive vibrato.
She started to perform rather young, but her breakthrough came with the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and the recording of her first album for Vanguard in 1960 – the first of many. Although she is a songwriter, she is mostly known for her covers of traditional folk songs, and for appearing barefoot on stage like a Madonna with her Gibson acoustic guitar.
She was an important part of the American roots revival. She introduced Bob Dylan to the public by singing his songs and giving him a stage to perform, and sang at Woodstock in 1969, barefoot and pregnant.
Still considered the Queen of Folk, her music has nonetheless evolved and now also covers folk rock, pop, country and gospel music.
But make no mistake. Joan Baez isn’t just pretty voice and words. The barefoot Madonna is also one of the first musicians who used her fame for social protest, giving her the coverage she needed to draw attention to the many causes she defended.
She participated in many Civil Rights Movement demonstrations, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where she famously sang “We Shall Overcome”.
She has also always been anti war. Her position against the Vietnam War led her to fund the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, and be arrested twice in 1967. She even spent eleven days in jail, “for disturbing the peace”! In December 1972, she joined a peace delegation and travelled to North Vietnam, where she was caught in the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi, which lasted 11 days.
She also defends human rights alongside Amnesty International, which she has actively (and financially) supported since the 1970s. She even received the Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015, and the organisation named an award after her!
Let’s not forget that she is a defender of LGBT rights. She opposed the Briggs initiative in 1978 (which was supposed to ban all gay teachers from schools in California), performed at a benefit concert for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and at the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride March.
Her activism often translates by going on tour or appearing in protests to sing – against the death penalty, poverty, or for environmental causes. And although her voice is less heard by the new generation, she is still a great support.
Joan Baez in her tree house, in the backyard of her home in Woodside, California. By Patrick Fraser, for the Observer, August 19, 2014.
What is often little known about her, is that she once had a lesbian relationship. In the spirit of this blog’s topic of choice, let’s explore this part of her past.
Joan Baez and Kimmie didn’t hide their relationship, but didn’t flaunt it either, leaving people to assume they were two friends rooming together. Joan Baez remembers this relationship in her autobiography And A Voice To Sing With and explains:
“There are pools which run deep, bathing pools for ladies only. In those cool and private places we can go undefended. In the quiet and non-resistant waters and on the warm shores beside them we can go and let out a lifelong sigh of relief and know that we are understood at last. We have white underbellies of softness which we expose only to the gentlest touch. Along the shores is an unspoken alliance of “us against the world” which purges resentments innate in us, resentments we have inherited form centuries of myth.”
She is well-known for having had a romance with Bob Dylan, with Steve Jobs, and being married to political activist David Harris, with whom she had her only child Gabriel. But she writes: “I had an affair with a girl when I was twenty-two… I assume the homosexuality within me, which people love to say is within all of us, made itself felt at that time… since the affair with Kimmie I have not had another affair with a woman nor the conscious desire to.”
Perhaps one day, the portrait of Kimmie will also appear along those of Dylan, Jobs, and MLK in Baez’s art studio, where she now started to paint. What a beautiful, multi-talented, and inspiring lady. Happy Birthday!
The German painter Anita Rée
passed away on this day in 1933. During her lifetime, Anita was a part of Wiemar Era Germany’s avant-garde movement.
“Self-Portrait” by Anita Rée, 1929.
Anita Clara Rée was born on
February 9, 1885 in Hamburg, Germany. Her father was a wealthy Jewish merchant
whose family had lived in Hamburg for centuries trading goods from India.
Despite being Jewish, Anita and her sisters were baptized as Lutheran, which
was common among upper class German Jewish families during this time.
She began studying art seriously
in 1905 when she came under the tutelage of the famous painter Arthur
Siebelist. In 1910, Anita, Franz Nölken, and their fellow painter friends formed
a communal studio in Hamburg, but the union soon broke up due to infighting. Anita would leave to paint Paris in 1912. After returning back to her hometown
of Hamburg to be featured at the Galerie Commeter in 1913, she finally got
her name on the map and became known around the city as a portraitist. In 1926, Anita helped
found an association of women artists known as GEDOK, but it did
not last long due to the rise of the Nazis in Germany beginning in the 1930s.
Much of Anita’s art was destroyed by the Nazis and antisemitism in Hamburg
eventually lead to her moving to the island of Sylt in 1932. Only a year later, on December 12,
1933, Anita committed suicide in her home. She left a note behind for her
sister, in which she admitted that it was harassment from antisemitic forces
and “disappointments on the personal level” that lead to her depression and
eventual decision to take her own life. Many historians have surmised that the
personal disappointments Anita refers to in her letter is her inability to live
a heterosexual life.
The influential painter and illustrator Jeanne Mammen was born on this day in 1890. Jeanne’s work is most famous for being apart of the New Objectivity and Symbolism artistic movements, as well as for depicting a specifically lesbian perspective of women’s bodies and the Berlin nightlife of the Wiemar Era.
Jeanne Mammen was born on November 21, 1890 in Berlin, Germany. Her father was a wealthy merchant and was able to afford for Jeanne to live out her youth and be educated at a school in Paris. She would eventually go on to advance her artistic studies in both Brussels and Rome. In 1916, her family was facing internment by the French government and so her parents fled to Amsterdam while Jeanne moved back to Berlin. On her own for the first time in her life, Jeanne’s first years as an adult in Berlin were incredibly influential on her life and work. Due to the fact that the French government had confiscated all of the Mammens’ property, she struggled to make ends meet and ended up interacting with people of varying class background for the first time in her life.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Jeanne threw herself into Berlin’s LGBT social and artistic scene. She found work illustrating movie posters and caricatures for satirical magazines, but her true passion was her watercolors and illustrations of the lesbian nightclubs and Bohemian bars she frequented in her daily life. Throughout the 1930s, she published what is now considered some of her most important work – a series of 8 lithographs for Pierre Louÿs’s lesbian poetry collection, Les Chansons de Bilitis. When her artwork of women was displayed at a 1933 exhibition, Nazi officials interrupted the event and deemed Jeanne’s work as “degenerate” and “Jewish.” She was forced to revert back to advertising and abandon the leverage she had been making as a distinctly lesbian artist.
One of Jeanne Mammen’s iconic depictions of Berlin’s popular lesbian clubs, She Represents, c. 1927-1930. Historian Richard Meyer writes, “She Represents, for example, was first published in Curt Moreck’s 1931 Führer durch das ‘lasterhafte’ Berlin (Guide to Immoral Berlin), a delightfully lurid handbook to the sundry, primarily nocturnal, diversions on offer in the metropolis. Mamman’s picture appeared under the heading ‘lesbian locales’, in chapter six of the guidebook, a chapter that also featured sections of ‘get together spots for homosexuals’, ‘night baths’, and ‘here are the transvestites’.” (x).
In the 1940s, Jeanne experimented with Cubism but did not begin exhibiting her work once again until after World War II. In her later years, she focused on collages and designed the sets for the well-known cabaret Die Badewanne. She would pass away fairly unknown on April 22, 1976, but her work began to be rediscovered and admired by German artists in the 2010s. In 2013, her more abstract pieces were featured in an exhibition during Berlin Art Week titled “Painting Forever!”
Born on this day in 1853, Louise Abbéma was a painter, sculptor, designer, and one of the most famous “New Women” of the Belle Époque era. She is most well-known for her relationship with her lover and muse Sarah Bernhardt, who was one of the most well-known French stage actresses of her day.
Louise Abbéma was born on October 30, 1853 in Étampes, Essonne. The Abbémas were an incredibly wealthy liberal family who were very well-connected to the Parisian art world; when Louise began to show interest in art at a young age, her parents had her train under greats such as Charles Joshua Chaplin, Jean-Jacques Henner and Carolus-Duran.After leaving home to study in Paris, the heart of the French art scene, at just the young age of 15, Louise became an active member in the premier salons of the day.
She first received widespread recognition for her paintings when she displayed her very first portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. Her trademarks were oil portraits and waters colors, as exemplified in the works of one of her biggest influence, Édouard Manet. Another big influence? The fellow lesbian artist Rosa Bonheur! Louise became known for her portraits, murals, as well as her contributions to Gazette des Beaux-Arts and L’Art. Some of her most prestigious awards throughout her career was the 1887 Palme Academiques and being dubbed the Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d’honneur in 1906
Although many historians have tried to paint Louise and Sarah Bernhardt as simply incredibly close friends, it is undeniable in our contemporary understanding that the two were lovers. Having made her stage debut in 1862 in the play Iphigénie, Sarah was already a household name by the time she met Louise in 1871. Both women were known as Bohemian eccentrics in polite society, especially Louise who wore men’s suits and smoked a cigar wherever she went, so it was a surprise to no one when the two eventually became inseparable. It was Louise’s first portrait of the “Divine Sarah,” as she was called by her adoring fans, that propelled her into superstar status after it became a hit at the Paris Salon of 1876, and throughout their 50-year-long partnership, Louise created multiple portraits and busts of Sarah.
As a successful, independent painter and a butch lesbian who frequently showed gender non-conforming women in her work, Louise broke the mold of what society expected of its women. She and Sarah stayed together until Sarah’s death in 1923 and ever since Louise’s own death on July 10, 1927, she has been remembered as one of the most groundbreaking of the early 20th century’s “New Women.”
Ever since 1951, October 9th has been recognized as Alice Austen Day in the state of New York in dedication
to one of the earliest and most prolific woman photographers in American
history. Often shrouded over in history textbooks is the fact not only was Alice
Austen a pioneering feminist, but she was also a lesbian
A self-portrait of Alice Austen taken on September 19, 1892. She would later call this “the very best picture that was ever taken of me” (x).
Elizabeth Alice Munn was born on
May 23, 1866 inside St. John’s Church on Staten Island. Her father abandoned
the family before Alice was born, which affected her to the point of refusing
to go by her baptismal surname of Munn and instead choosing to be called
Austen, the name of her maternal family. Alice would grow up at the Austen family home
called “Clear Comfort” in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island, a quaint
and loved child as the only young person in a house full of six adults. Her
first camera was given to her by her uncle, Oswald Müller, who was a sea
captain and often brought the family back gifts from his expeditions. Although
she was only 10-years-old, Alice fell in love with the camera and developed a
hobby of taking photos of her family members and her pets in the family garden. Her
family recognized her talent right away and her Uncle Peter, a chemistry
professor, taught her how to develop her photos.
Alice Austen, The Darned Club, 1891. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society (x).
Supported by her wealthy family,
Alice spent much of her life traveling with her camera equipment and
documenting her experiences. She spent the summers traveling around Europe and
the rest of the seasons traveling around the New York area. It was on one such
excursion trip that Alice met the love of her life, Gertrude Tate. They met in
1899 at a Catskill hotel known as “Twilight Rest.” Gertrude was 28 to
Alice’s 33 and the photos of that summer are riddled with portraits of
Gertrude. Despite the Tate family’s disapproval of their daughter’s “wrong
devotion” to another woman, the two moved into Clear Comfort together in 1917. Alice
and Gertrude lived out their days at Clear Comfort comfortably as society
women, frequently attending parties and even starting a gardening club.
Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, Pickards Penny Photo Studio, Stapleton Staten Island, c. 1905. Courtesy of Alice Austen House (x).
Unfortunately, after the 1929
stock market crash, they fell into hard times financially and were forced to
move out of Clear Comfort and into a small apartment. Alice would live out her last years in poverty, only seeing her photography fully recognized in the last years of her life. In 1950, many of her early
photographs were published in an anthology called The Revolt of Women and an article about her life and
work was published in Life Magazine the same year. On
October 9, 1951 Alice was honored by the state of New York with the declaration
of the date as being Alice Austen Day. While at the opening ceremony of Alice
Austen Day, which was also an exhibition of her work, Alice is quoted as
saying, "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out
now to be a pleasure for other people.” She would pass away a year later
on June 9, 1952. Although she and Gertrude had requested to be buried together,
their families refused.