A common language
Two women, eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirit, each other’s
a whole new poetry beginning here.
-Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems
These 4 lines by Adrienne Rich accompany Joan E Brian’s 1979 portraits she took of lesbians in her book titled Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians. The book is a love letter to lesbians; it is a collection of photographs of lesbians sitting at home, adorning their lovers, lying down and in spaces where they could be themselves without conforming to society’s expectations. Brian began writing this love letter when she took a photograph of herself and Sharon, the woman she was in love with. It was written for the woman within her whose heart yearned to see photos of women kissing women. Her letter comes from a courageous place because it was addressed to lesbians during a time when society violently oppressed them through words, representation and outright disrespect. She made women who were never seen expressing and sharing their love for each other with the world seen. She took the blindfolds off of so many eyes and for that, her love letter is the most beautiful expression of love. Her photographs say I love you because you are you and that is a beautiful sight that the world deserves to see forever.
Her photograph of Priscilla and Regina is a black and white photo of two lesbians resting in each other’s arms. It portrays two people who found home in each other and peace in one another. Visual Artist Fhatuwani Mukheli recreated Priscilla and Regina using charcoal on fabriano paper. And just like with photographs, the lines in Mukheli’s artwork induce an emotion or a psychological response. We feel something when we look at Priscilla and Regina and Mukheli knows this because he asks ‘you know this feeling?’. Knowing the story behind Brian’s photograph of two lovers resting in each other’s arms, helps us understand that this feeling is a liberating one. It is one that releases people from the shackles of society that permit them no rest. In other words, when we see Priscilla and Regina at peace in a world that was chaotic (and still is), we feel something similar to what lesbians felt when they saw photographs of themselves in Eye to Eye. It is not the exact feeling because it is not ours (people Brian did not address the love letter to) to feel, but when lesbians see Priscilla and Regina by Mukheli, by Brian, by others, they feel loved in a world that has historically deprived them love through discrimination and oppression.
Maybe Mukheli was experimenting, maybe he recreated Brian’s photograph because art is therapeutic, maybe it ignited something in him and made him feel. Regardless of his reason for drawing Priscilla and Regina, what he did is important because to recreate something is beyond just producing a replica of it. His artwork is not just a drawing of a photograph, it is part of a significant historical moment for lesbians.