Zanele Muholi’s Documentation of the Painful Journey of Black life


The South African visual activist and creative, her identity as a female, lesbian and how photography saved her life.
South Africa, 1948 to 1991. A codified system of racial segregation dictates the rules of day-to-day life. “There is a clear intent in this project,” the South-African-based visual activist says, placing noted emphasis on the words ‘clear’ and ‘intent’, as she speaks on her ongoing self-portrait series, Somnyama Ngonyama. “It’s all about representation. I’m confronting the politics of race and representation in South Africa and beyond the South African borders in the most natural way I can – by presenting my own Black body.”
Zanele Muholi was born in 1972 in Umlazi, Durban, and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Muholi is a visual activist focusing mainly to effect social change. Among her many achievements, she co-founded the Forum of Empowerment of Women and she is an Honorary Professor at the University of the Arts Bremen. She became known globally with Faces and Phases, her portrait photography of the lesbian community in South Africa.
Somnyama Ngonyama, translated from Zulu as Hail The Dark Lioness, is an ongoing self-portrait series which is now presented in her solo exhibition in Autograph ABP Gallery, London, in which she expresses the confrontation with the politics of race.
‘Somnyama Ngonyama presents a compelling and visionary mosaic of identities, an exquisite empire of selves. Inviting us into a multi-layered conversation, each photograph in the series, each visual inscription, each confrontational narrative depicts a self in profound dialogue with countless others: implicitly gendered, culturally complex and historically grounded black bodies.’ Renée Mussai, Exhibition Curator.
The settings of the portraits of Somnyama Ngonyama range from Africa and Europe to North America. There are more than 60 on display in the exhibition. The objects incorporated into the pieces become charged with meaning. The use of plastic materials enact a commentary on environmental issues and excess waste production.
If you can’t make it to the exhibition, this is how Zanele Muholi tells about it in her own words.
“Somnyama Ngonyama is about self-representation. It’s me looking at particular political issues that still affect us as human beings and I’m drawing on very real historical events in South Africa, and beyond South African borders. I used my own body to speak on issues of race for instance and focussed mainly on the importance of Blackness. What does it mean to be Black today? I explored that question through and through”.
Muholi describes the Somnyama Ngonyama project as the most painful one for her and explains why.
“In comparison to past projects this one was especially painful. I didn’t want to expose another body to my own pain, even those people who might share the same experiences. Sometimes it wasn’t even physical pain, it was emotional and stress-induced…” “It’s painful because all of this has happened before; grandmothers, mothers, people we all know have been subjected to this racial objectification. I often find myself thinking “this can’t be” and the images are a manifestation of that feeling that it is still very real. We now need to find different ways to articulate this pain. This is my take”.
“If my photos were transformed into music, they'd sound traditional”. Zanele Muholi
Muholi’s art aims to educate viewers about the past. About the violence of racism past and present, the conflict that has marked South Africa’s history and not only. The photographs that make up the artist's series use her body as the canvas to tackle these questions of race, sexuality, gender and politics. In centering herself in Somnyama Ngonyama, she explains that she’s enacting a healing process. Documenting her body in defiance of forces that would rather see her erased, “I want to remember. I want to be remembered.”
Visibility and exposure have a cost. LGBT people in South Africa are at risk of brutal beatings, "corrective rape" and murder for being themselves. But Muholi is fearless. In an interview with the Guardian, she stressed the urgency of her projects:
“This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities.
"...We cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”
“Photography saved my life”. Zanele Muholi
“The space is dark. The space is cold. As I entered those cells I knew that lives were lost there… The space is haunted, by the knowledge of people being brutalised, of blood being shed: you sense it. People were conditioned to live like animals, because of the colour of their skin. It’s a space of brutality”. From the exhibition, text by Zanele Muholi
“I'm scared. But this work needs to be shown”. Zanele Muholi
"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." - Zanele Muholi

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Yana Binaev

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Yana Binaev
Photographer | Dancer | Poet