Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’

Published: 13 September 2022

17 striking self-portraits by celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972) will go on display at an outdoor exhibition at the University of Glasgow next month.

1 October–6 November 2022
University of Glasgow East Quad
Admission free

17 striking self-portraits by celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972) will go on display at an outdoor exhibition at the University of Glasgow next month.

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama I, Paris, 2014. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg/Amsterdam and Yancey Richardson, New York. Somnyama Ngonyama, meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’, opens on 1 October and is delivered by Belfast Photo Festival in partnership with Street Level Photoworks and The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, and coincides with Black History Month Scotland.

Somnyama Ngonyama is Muholi’s ongoing series of black and white self-portraits, taken in cities across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. In turning the camera on themself, Muholi’s aim is to “create visual archives that resist, affirm and bring forth the complex lives of those often made invisible within South African society, and beyond.”

From the early 2000s, Muholi has documented and celebrated the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities.

One of the most acclaimed artists working today, Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission is “to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.”

Muholi’s images aim to visually propose new modes of coexistence in the future by engaging with history and the archive. They have said:

“It is important to recognise that our past history of struggle has shaped the present moment. As citizens of South Africa especially, we cannot forget the brutalities of apartheid; it has shaped our consciousness as a nation, hence our work is deeply connected to this history of activism. To me, Somnyama Ngonyama is one way of reckoning with this past – to address its politics of race, racism and colonialism – and it is also a way of addressing a past that still informs the present. My artistic practice offers me the opportunity to not only work creatively through these politics of the past, but also to directly link them to the present; to connect these dots. Photography for me is always first and foremost a tool of activism, driven by the idea of social change.”

In this evocative series of self-portraits, everyday objects are transformed into dramatic and historically loaded props. In staging themself as a variety of identities, archetypes and personae, Muholi’s work poses critical questions about the politics of representation:

“By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”

For Muholi, visual activism is a tool for world-building: “This work is done to ensure that the next generation will be able to draw on a diverse – and queer – archive of images for visual reference: a document to see themselves in and feel represented.”

Zandra Yeaman, Curator of Unfinished Conversations at The Hunterian said:

"The Hunterian is going through a time of discomfort asking itself critical questions about ethics, race, social justice and power. This is a great time for us to exhibit Zanele Muholi’s visual activism. This encourages us to reflect and confront our ideas about representation, identities and the legacy of colonial systems."

Somnyama Ngonyama is on display in the University of Glasgow’s East Quadrangle from 1 October until 6 November 2022. Open daily from 9am until 5pm. Admission free.

A Belfast Photo Festival Touring Exhibition.

Image: Zanele Muholi, Somnyama I, Paris, 2014. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg/Amsterdam and Yancey Richardson, New York. 

For further information or images contact:
Harriet Gaston, Communications Manager, The Hunterian

Notes to Editors

The Hunterian

The oldest public museum in Scotland, with collections spanning arts, sciences and humanities, The Hunterian is at the forefront of university museums around the world. Since it opened at the University of Glasgow in 1807, The Hunterian has been an invaluable academic and community resource and in years to come, The Hunterian is committed to becoming a more meaningful place for more diverse audiences.

As a university gallery and museum, The Hunterian creates space for intellectual inquiry and a process of learning and experimentation. The Hunterian collection’s Enlightenment history made a repository of knowledge that materialises the problematic history of Western modernity and its fundamentally colonial and capitalist underpinnings. The founding collection came through the bequest of Dr William Hunter (1718-1783) and since The Hunterian opened at the University of Glasgow in 1807, the collections have been developed in ways that reflect our city’s deep relationship with empire, transatlantic slavery, colonialism and migration. 

Twitter @hunterian
Facebook @HunterianGlasgow
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Street Level Photoworks

Street Level Photoworks (SLP) is a leading photography arts organisation that organises a year round programme of quality photography exhibitions in its home venue of Trongate 103 as well as working in partnership with a range of venues, locally, regionally and internationally. It also provides artists and the public with a range of inclusive opportunities to make and engage with photography through residencies, community collaborations, training and production facilities. SLP also run the Photography Networks in Scotland platform, sharing information and news on photography exhibitions and events throughout Scotland. It is a member of Scotland’s Workshops, a network of 11 visual arts production facilities all across the country.

Twitter @StreetLevel_
Facebook @streetlevelphotoworks
Instagram @streetlevelphotoworks

Belfast Photo Festival

Belfast Photo Festival is a not-for-profit organisation that presents one of the leading International Festivals of photography in the United Kingdom and the Visual Arts Festival of Northern Ireland. Launched in 2011, this now annual photographic event has been described as one of the "best photography festivals in the world" (Capture Magazine) and attracts upwards of 100 thousand visitors a year, celebrating some of the finest National and International contemporary photography across 30 museums, galleries and public spaces. The programme consistently addresses the political, social and cultural climate of Belfast, raising global issues and animating them through high-calibre international photography.

Twitter @BelfastPhotoFes
Facebook @belfastphotofestival
Instagram @belfastphotofestival

First published: 13 September 2022