Zanele Muholi: Hail the Dark Lioness by Laura Garmeson
Zanele Muholi’s photography is the stuff of legends and nightmares. The South African photographer and self-described ‘visual activist’ has amassed a body of work highly attuned to the multilayered frequencies that make up social identity: race, sexuality and class. In her latest project Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), now on show at Autograph ABP in London, she turns the lens on herself, challenging conventional Western notions of identity through a powerful series of self-portraits.
Self-portraiture is unfamiliar territory for Muholi, whose work thus far has focused on documenting the LGBTI communities in her home country. Growing up as a black lesbian in South Africa, one of the most hostile homophobic societies in the world, Muholi has witnessed firsthand the fallout from hate crimes and other violent attempts to efface homosexuality from the public consciousness. To counter this, over the past decade she has built upon a sprawling photographic series entitled Faces and Phases, comprising hundreds of portraits of black gay and lesbian South Africans, many of whom are Muholi’s friends and acquaintances. The ongoing series is archival in nature, each portrait an intimate testament to a community’s visual history, paving the way for what the photographer terms greater ‘black queer visibility’.
Making the invisible visible is one of the key objectives of Somnyama Ngonyama. In the high-ceilinged gallery space at Autograph ABP hang over sixty monochrome prints. Each image is a portrait of Zanele Muholi, but each also represents a different feeling or mood, not necessarily a persona or a guise, but a separate remnant of a fractured self. Wreathed and adorned with various materials – latex gloves, scouring brushes, safety pins – and with heightened contrast in post-production deepening Muholi’s skin into an oil-slick black, a multitude of women seems to stare out from the walls, as in a hall of darkened mirrors.
These portraits are steeped in various layers of meaning. In Bona (‘See or look’ 2015), Muholi lies naked on an opulent bed, looking at her reflection in an oval mirror. As an object, the mirror is often interpreted as a symbol of the self; Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ famously describes the moment of self-recognition in human development. But the image also draws on the visual language of cinema, the low lighting, pose, and embroidered bed linen recalling a film noir. We see two Muholis, her face within the mirror, and the back of her head patterned with braids, which riffs on the work of Nigerian photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and his portraits of Nigerian women’s intricate hairstyles. But her position also means that we, the viewers, are excluded from her gaze, which is locked into the mirror, one self interrogating another. Teju Cole, writing in the New York Times, describes such a portrait as a ‘visual soliloquy’: it exists on its own terms, refusing subjugation to the viewer.
African photography has long been haunted by the anthropological images made by European colonizers, the stilted poses and vacant stares of the subjects enforced in the vile name of taxonomy. Muholi’s succession of photographic selves makes several gestures toward this mode, but while those colonial ethnographic images were designed to homogenise and control, Muholi’s self-portraits are liberated and diverse, at times ironic. In the triptych Nomalandi Wenda (‘Money is Betrothed’, 2016) Muholi embodies a young bride, wrapped in a cowhide blanket to symbolize her dowry, with Nelson Mandela’s face staring out from banknotes clipped in her hair, as she literally wears her price on her head. Throughout the exhibition, traditional isiZulu dress is alluded to yet estranged by the materials used to construct it, its history distorted by the trappings of modernity.
Other portraits are more overtly political in nature, many made as a response to real life atrocities. In Thulani II (2015) Muholi stares straight into the camera, her eyes burning, bare-chested and wearing a miner’s hat and goggles. The image is a reference to the 2012 Marikana massacre, where thirty-four striking miners were killed by South African security forces. Then there are more subtle examples of resistance: the Bester series is a homage to Muholi’s mother, who was a domestic worker for a white South African family for 42 years. In one of these images Muholi wears a crown of silver scouring pads, which glitter above the smears of light on her bare skin, bestowing regal status or even martyrdom upon a maid’s lifetime of hardship.
‘I’m reclaiming my blackness,’ Muholi has said, ‘just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.’ By presenting us with this multitude of selves, Muholi is expressing unequivocally that blackness is not a mask or a monolith, but rather it is multifaceted and endlessly diverse. The notion of the single, coherent self – one of the founding premises of Western philosophy – is emphatically rejected. The mirror image, the blushing bride, the exoticised ethnographic ‘other’, the political activist, the domestic worker – these are all archetypes made visible in the realm of the Dark Lioness, alongside many other selves that evade classification.
Muholi claims that Somnyama Ngonyama has been her most painful project to date, due to the constant channeling of oppression and suffering into visual art. We can draw certain parallels with the visual archiving of a community in Faces and Phases, but this particular series of portraits more closely resembles what curator Renée Mussai calls an ‘archive of the self’. Whatever you think of the multiple selves of Zanele Muholi, they will keep coming back to haunt you.