An artist has accused Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana of being homophobic, after she stormed out in disgust over a "pornographic" art exhibition featuring black lesbian couples.

The Johannesburg exhibition in August last year had aimed to celebrate the role of black South African women.

Xingwana had been due to speak at the opening of the exhibition at Constitution Hill but deemed the artwork to be "immoral".

Xingwana had been offended by the work of Zanele Muholi, a critically acclaimed artist whose work explored the identity and relationships of black lesbians in South Africa.

According to Xingwana: "Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation-building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this.

"It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building."

Her spokeswoman, Lisa Combrinck, said: "Minister Xingwana was also concerned that there were children present at the event and that children should not be exposed to some of the images on exhibit."

According to The Times newspaper, Xingwana thought the artwork to be "pornographic".

The exhibition's curator, Bongi Bengu, told the Cape Times she had been confused by the minister's actions. Bengu said: "It came as quite a surprise that she was upset; when I conceptualised the exhibition with other artists, it wasn't our intention to offend."

Muholi, speaking to the Cape Times from a hotel room

in Pennsylvania, US, where she is exhibiting and lecturing, said: "It's ironic, it's annoying and really frustrating. It goes to show how homophobic some of

our ministers are. This is a knock to our constitution."

She said she attempted to create a visual history for black South African lesbians, but struggled against homophobia. "I'm really disturbed. It's beyond just lesbian women lying next to each other; it's censorship.

"She has no understanding of what black lesbians are

facing in the country."

Muholi said she feared Xingwana's remarks would lead to hate crimes against lesbians.

"We still have a long way to go, the struggle is not over yet."

A media release on which the Arts and Culture Department's seal was printed, stated the exhibition to be "unique, innovative and cutting edge".

The South African government's website states that Xingwana served as chairwoman of SADC's Regional Women's Caucus. She also chaired the Joint Monitoring Committee for the Improvement of Quality

of Life and Status of Women for two years.

According to a News24 source, an Arts and Culture

employee has been suspended for allowing the backing of the exhibition.

Combrinck denied that any staff members had been fired as a result of the exhibition, and said the reason had been irregularities in "project funding".

She also denied Xingwana had reacted in a homophobic

manner. "There were children there as young as three who could have been affected." - Cape Times