08.05 – 02.06.2019
‘Now you may not need a passbook to satisfy the authorities, but there are other ways to exclude people from accessing what they deserve’
-Zanele Muholi in an interview with the British Journal of Photography
In 2018, visual activist Prof. Sir Zanele Muholi approached a number of young artists to interpret photographs from their series Somnyama Ngonyama [Hail the Dark Lioness], which comprised of subversive black and white images dealing with the (mis)representation of the black body in media such as colonial exoticisation of black people, hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community and the Marikana massacre. It reimagines gender, society’s ideals of beauty, blackness and queerness through self-portraiture: a reclamation of the gaze.
‘IKHONO LASENATALI’ is a project created by Muholi after 25 years of democracy to celebrate 25 emerging artists based in KwaZulu-Natal, offering a reinterpretation of these photographs. An interesting layer of meaning emerges out of this, a second translation that manifests itself in a multitude of mediums: beaded string, woodcut, oil and acrylic on canvas and paper, pastel on paper (to name a few).
‘IKHONO LASENATALI’ destabilises the art world’s exclusivity by giving a platform to black artists who deserve recognition but are underrepresented in KwaZulu-Natal, disrupting ideas of who can access space and who is made visible by being given a platform.
History has repeatedly erased black artists from the artistic canon. Art history taught in schools is largely Eurocentric, positioning whiteness as the driving force. Muholi says in the commissioning statement for this exhibition that “history books need to be rewritten to accommodate [black] artists who are practicing or creating in this region.” On the occurrence that I had visited, primary school children from different townships in KwaZulu-Natal were present, engaging with the art. Muholi had paid for the transport costs for the schools to get there, and commissioned the artists for all of their works.
Muholi was born in KwaZulu-Natal in 1972 in Umlazi. This is their way of giving back to the community. A large number of the artists featured in this show hail from the Amasosha Art Movement, a collective of young Durban artists promoting solidarity and hard work amongst artists. There are more male artists in this show as Muholi had intended to document for their One Hundred Men, Amadoda Ayikhulu series, however they felt it necessary to acquaint themselves creatively with these artists first.
Piercing sets of eyes greet you from every wall and corner. Reincarnations of Muholi’s alter-egos hold the viewer hostage by a defiant gaze as they delve further into an entrapment. The insertion of colour complicates the questions posed by Muholi in their black and white series.
On speaking about some of the photographs in Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi had said that there is a incorrect perception of homosexuality as ‘un-African’. One could interpret the work of Morgan Mohape, a self-taught artist from Umlazi, as the normalisation of queerness in what we call ‘tradition’ by recreating the photographs using beadwork as his medium.
Mthobisi Maphumulo recreates Thulani ii, a reference to Marikana, rendering the black and white photograph a gaily coloured oil pastel painting that eerily masks an impending violence waiting dormantly beneath the surface. The medium speaks to a mineral that influences the economy and toys with the notion of safety gear as ‘modern day’ African masks.
In one of the more specific alter-egos in the series, Muholi assumed the identity of Khwezi (Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo), the queer womxn who charged former president Jacob Zuma with rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of the rape and the act ruled as consensual. Khwezi was forced to flee to the Netherlands. She passed away in 2016, and was memorialized as a figure of the struggle for gender justice and resistance against domestic violence, under the banner of #RememberKhwezi. Khwezi, by Sphephelo Mnguni, bears witness as you walk on, reversing the position of the subject and the viewer. An illusion to the anger and violence in a community that sees you as a threat is felt by the ironically candied red that she is embedded in.
Muholi claims that Durban artists need recognition because “in order for an artist to make sense it means that you need to have been exhibited, have your work published and also have your work analysed by the experts, curators and art writers.” This has been made particularly difficult by gatekeepers of the art world who police access. Collectivism and visibility are said to be at the core principles of this project, and this is evident in all facets of this exhibition. Muholi has given due recognition to these artists by sharing their platform and resources – at a time of especially heightened visibility due to their major retrospective at the Tate Modern – making visible a history that would have been obscured by others. It is a resistance and an affirmation.