Artist Zanele Muholi.

South Africa’s Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana has walked out of an exhibition after seeing photographs by an acclaimed lesbian photographer.

The Times reported on Tuesday, that Xingwana was set to open the Innovative Women exhibition in Johannesburg at Constitution Hill.

However, when she saw the images by lesbian artist and activist Zanele Muholi included in the exhibition by young black female artists, she left the event “in a huff” without giving her speech, describing Muholi’s work as “pornographic”.

Xingwana’s spokesperson later read out a statement to the newspaper confirming the incident. “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this.”

The minister added that “It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”

The exhibition, which has already been shown in Durban and Cape Town, was given R300,000 in funding by Xingwana’s department.

It was reported that the minister had previously tried to bar the images of naked lesbian couples from the exhibition. The incident suggests that the Department of Arts and Culture may be unconstitutionally imposing moral censorship on its funding and other functions.

Muholi told the newspaper from the US: “Those pictures are based on experience and issues. Where else can we express ourselves if not in our democratic country? Children need to know about these things. A lot of people who have no understanding of sexual orientation, people are suffering in silence.”

Muholi, whose work has been shown around the world to wide acclaim, has won a number of international awards for her photography. She was chosen as the 2009 Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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