ZANELE MUHOLI: SOMNYAMA NGONYAMA
‘HAIL, THE DARK LIONESS’
1 October–6 November 2022
University of Glasgow East Quad
One of the most acclaimed artists working today, Zanele 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."
Describing themself as a visual activist, from the early 2000s, Muholi has documented and celebrated the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities.
Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’) is an ongoing series of self-portraits. 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."
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."
This exhibition is delivered by Belfast Photo Festival in partnership with Street Level Photoworks and The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.
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.