Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits are striking images of the South African. In many of the stark, black-and-white photographs, Muholi holds the onlooker’s gaze. The images show Muholi in mostly indoor settings donning various materials, from currency to a footstool. Muholi creates numerous layers to deconstruct, all of them personal — some even painful.
Muholi’s photography is intended to move beyond fine-art boundaries. They (Muholi’s pronoun) want the images to go deeper as a means of expression and a way to respond to injustices. Given this particular focus and intention behind the work, Muholi is a self-described visual activist rather than artist or photographer.
Muholi’s latest body of work on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is titled “Somnyama Ngonyama,” which is Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness. Zulu is Muholi’s first language and the ethnicity of their mother, Bester, who passed away in 2009. One of the first pieces visitors will see is a large-scale version of an image that shares the name of the exhibition title. In it, Muholi’s face is framed with a material that mirrors a lion’s mane. They’ve purposely manipulated the camera settings so their dark skin appears even darker than their natural tone in the nearly 80 photographs on display. Muholi is regal and stunning in the portrait. The artist is sending a message to Black children that their complexion, no matter how dark, is worthy of pride.
“As ugly as I feel at times, I have to tell myself that I’m beautiful,” said Muholi. “I think about beauty all the time. I’m not your common girl that will make it easy into your magazine, so I have to create that image for myself. I have to say hello me, and I’m doing exactly that.”
Images can have a powerful impact and Muholi is doing important work. Changing the narrative is crucial to counteract colorism, an outgrowth of colonialism.
Nearby is a photograph of Muholi in a reclining position on the floor with their body embracing inflated plastic bags. Stacks and stacks of newspapers are piled up in the background. Muholi captured the image in 2016 in Johannesburg, three weeks before a scheduled operation. The plastic represents the tumors that needed to be removed.
“Just me being in a state of panic before an operation and I started like counting down of whether I was going to survive or not,” said Muholi. “The fear and all that I was going through.”
The photograph also addresses how the mainstream media views the Black feminine body, particularly the male gaze.
In “Bester I,” Muholi channels a young version of their mother who was a domestic worker. After Muholi’s father died when they were 2 months old, Bester raised the family on her own. In the photograph, dozens of clothespins create a crown on their head and also serve as earrings. Muholi also draped a door mat around their shoulders.
Muholi’s collection of photographs also addresses social justice and human rights. The artist took them from 2014 – 2017 while traveling the world; from Kyoto, Japan to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Muholi is creating a Black photographic archive. Importantly, these are images of Black people made by someone who is also Black rather than someone who isn’t.
“Let’s have positive images of ourselves that are done with love,” said Muholi. “Let us consume this self-love because our forefathers, our foremothers that came before us never had the opportunity to speak for themselves.”
This collection is part of the artist’s overall goal of rewriting the visual history of the Black queer and trans community of South Africa.
Muholi is an internationally recognized artist and filmmaker whose work is in the collections of museums held in high regard, including the Guggenheim in New York. In 2002 they co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) and in 2009, Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual (activist) media. Muholi received a master of fine arts from Ryerson University in Toronto. Several years later they became an honorary professor at the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste Bremen.
Given their commitment to activism, some might question why Muholi is allowing their work to be shown at SAM and other museums as the exhibition travels. The artist sees it as an educational opportunity.
“We need to use them. We need to penetrate these spaces. We cannot always run away from them because we think that they are structured for the other,” said Muholi. “We need to imagine or think of ourselves as consumers and also users of those spaces. Therefore, we need to make sure that we occupy these spaces in a useful manner.”
WHAT: “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness”
WHEN: Runs until Nov. 8
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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