11.19.2015 – 01.29.2016
After decades of documenting the lives of the LGBTI community, Zanele Muholi’s new show turns the lens on herself. Translated as “Hail the Dark Lioness”, the thirty self portraits presented in ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ are both deeply personal and defiantly political. Muholi’s transformations of herself in each photograph create an uncomfortable dialogue with issues of identity, social inequality and the representation of the black body in the photographic archive as a whole. They reference people from her own life – her mother, a dead brother – as well as incidents in the broader South African post-democratic historical landscape such as Marikana.
In each of the portraits Muholi has pushed the contrast to highlight her blackness as an inescapable fact of her representation which the viewer is forced to confront. Her forceful, piercing gaze makes for a sometimes uncomfortable engagement with the work that raises serious questions about where the power lies in the representational process.
On entering the gallery one is confronted with a wall size portrait titled Somnyama IV, in which a bare-breasted Muholi glares out at the viewer beneath a pile of weaved hair. This portrait raises the recently hot topic of black hair as well as providing a stark introduction to the photographer as subject of her own (and our) gaze.
The first section of portraits contains pictures from Muholi’s ongoing Brave Beauties essay which documents LGBTI beauty pageant contestants and displays much continuity with the Faces and Phases project that she has built her career on. The subjects of these portraits are identified and their location listed, placing their existence on the record and in the archive. They pose with the freedom of the safety of self-expression that their interaction with Muholi allows. They are who they are and have nothing to fear from anyone within or without these frames.
Somnyama begins in the next room of the gallery with the photographs arranged along each of the walls, creating a virtual wall of mirrors as each of the different incarnations of Muholi looks out at others across the room. Once the viewer inserts themselves into the space, the work begins to cast its compelling and often difficult spell – breaking the monologue of Muholi’s various incarnations and creating a dialogue that forces the confrontation of difficult themes.
In her obvious interaction with the photographic archive through the creation of images that recall everything from fashion magazines to National Geographic covers and the mining photos of David Goldblatt, Muholi deliberately raises questions of the exoticisation and othering of black subjects through the history of mainstream representational photography. Her use of different costumes and objects in the photos adds a further layer of meaning which draws on both archival elements and her personal history. Bester 1, Mayotte in which she poses in a headdress made of washing pegs, her lips smeared white, is named after her mother who was a domestic servant in apartheid South Africa. This history, while not provided to the viewer within the exhibition or its accompanying leaflet, is available to viewers who have read interviews with Muholi and adds an appreciation of her personal development and concerns and their influence on her practice.
While in the hands of a less conscious and self-aware photographer, the turning of the lens on oneself might result in self-indulgent overkill, here it’s merely a vehicle for Muholi to move her practice forward while also keeping her eye on the frustrations of her country and the issues of identity that have preoccupied her for over a decade.
In an ever more racially charged South Africa – and with the increase in white expressions of ignorance of and disdain for black citizens – Muholi’s work provides an aesthetically coherent and politically important point of departure for a real conversation about the violence that images can perpetuate on perceptions of real people in the world beyond the frame.
In her statement to accompany the show Muholi writes that with these portraits she is “Reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.” Here in a space of privilege, she has deftly forced that privilege to confront itself with undeniably resonant and memorable results that reclaim not only her own identity but the identities of black subjects from throughout the history of photography. A task worthy of a lioness indeed.