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South Africa: Revisiting artist Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama self-portraits

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 18:58

"Phindile I" (Paris, 2014), by Zanele Muholi, is from "Somnyama Ngonyama," published by Delpire and Co. © Editions Delpire

Non-binary South African visual activist and artist Zanele Muholi presents an excellent monograph, Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness. A rare photographic tour de force.

The series of self-portraits have been taking the art world by storm since 2016. Exhibited in large format at the Luma Foundation during the Rencontres d’Arles, an international photography festival in southern France, Muholi’s work also featured prominently at the 2019 Venice Biennale in Italy.

The latest monograph compiles 96 of the artist’s black-and-white silver gelatine self-portraits. The book deserves a special mention for its flawless finishes and reproductions, subtle commentary and originality. Muholi’s socially engaged art demands nothing less.

While Somnyama is (paradoxically) a collection of self-portraits, it is unwaveringly focused on ‘the other’, turning the artist’s body into a repository of personal stories and historical events. In 2009, they founded the website Inkanyiso (isiZulu for ‘light’), which catalogues everyday experiences of members of South Africa’s LGBT community, who all too often face mistreatment despite their equal protection under the country’s constitution that was adopted in 1996.

Even the most unassuming photos in the collection allude to a particular situation, historical figure or experience – whether personal, socio-political or cultural.

From the outset of Inkanyiso’s creation, Muholi wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. “Each time we are represented by outsiders, we are merely seen as victims of rape and homophobia,” the artist told us in 2013. “Our lives are always sensationalised, rarely understood.”

Muholi’s intellectual approach hasn’t budged since. “I photograph people I know, people I have long-standing relationships with…I don’t work on commission, I record stories. I want to evoke those who shape history in the world we live in. I’m trying to humanise my community, so to speak.”

Their body as a medium

Muholi’s body has become the medium through which activism is expressed, which goes well beyond a mere statement of artistic intent. In an interview Muholi gave to Autograph ABP’s curator, Renée Mussai, for the monograph, the artist said:

“The key question that I take to bed with me is: what is my responsibility as a living being – as a South African citizen reading continually about racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the mainstream media? This is what keeps me awake at night. Thus Somnyama is not only about beautiful photographs, as such, but also about bringing forth political statements. The series touches on beauty and relates to historical incidents, giving affirmation to those who doubt whenever they speak to themselves, whenever they look in the mirror, to say, ‘You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you – because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.’”

‘Somnyama ngonyama’ by Zanele Muholi, is published by Delpire and Co (212 pages, €72).

The artist’s response is to create images in dense, deep black, contrasted with bursts of brilliant white. Muholi, who is no longer the real Muholi but instead the embodiment of countless other stories, often looks at us straight on, when not gazing right through us, escaping behind eyes.

In most of the photos, Muholi dons a headdress made of everyday objects: hats, hair picks, sunglasses, rugs, sticks, pens, a basin, tyres, laundry pegs, a lampshade (in Inkanyiso I), washing machine hoses (in Sebenzile, Parktown), a stool (in Sibusiso, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy) and, in Bester V, a superb work which pays tribute to the artist’s mother, scouring pads.

Among the 96 self-portraits contained in the work, not a single one is superfluous. All are probing, all spark reflection that transcends the images themselves, transforming the artist into a pagan icon.

Someone whose story has been erased

Basizeni XI, dedicated to Muholi’s late sister, Basizeni Muholi (b. 1956 d. 2016), is arguably one of the most moving photos. In her commentary accompanying the self-portrait, Mussai writes: “Dear Zanele, each time that I look at you, and that you hold my gaze in an exquisite scopophilic encounter made possible by the expanding virtual empire that is Somnyama Ngonyama, I think of these words from Maya Angelou: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”

Basizeni XI, from Stevenson [https://www.stevenson.info/exhibition/1440/work/49]
In the image, Basizeni Muholi, looking to the side wearily, is fully entangled in a cloak of black rubber tubes which call to mind lifeless snakes. From their ears dangle traditional Zulu iziqhaza earrings.

Basizeni XI is a photo of mourning, but not for the late sister alone, as it also mourns all who lost their lives, working as slaves extracting rubber, during the reign of Belgian King Leopold II in the Congo; all who burned to death after having a petrol-filled tyre set upon their chest and arms and then set on fire, in an unspeakable travesty of justice; and all who fall victim today to the shameless waste of our time.

But the subject retains their pride, as their body language shows with the defiant look in their eyes, the raised chin, the torso upright, the rubber headdress and the earrings. Each self-portrait in Somnyama deserves a close examination: “Even the most unassuming photos in the collection allude to a particular situation, historical figure or experience – whether personal, socio-political or cultural. They address someone, they address a body, whose story has been erased. Someone who is fighting for a cause, someone who is expressing joy. Every photo has a name for that reason.”

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, by Zanele Muholi, Aperture, 212 pages.

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