In the exhibition, ready-made objects and found materials are transformed into culturally loaded props, merging the political with the aesthetic – often commenting on specific events in South Africa’s recent history. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude, while simultaneously alluding to sexual politics, violence and the suffocating prisms of gendered identity. Rubber tires, electrical cords or cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation, and powerfully evoke the plight of workers – maids, miners and members of the disenfranchised communities. Using different artefacts – from chopsticks, can lids and safety pins to plastic bags or polythene wrapping – Muholi draws attention to urgent environmental issues and toxic waste. Accessories such as cowrie shells or beads highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticised representations of African cultures and people as well as the global economies of migration, commerce and labour.
The portraits in Somnyama Ngonyama skillfully employ the conventions of classical portraiture, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. By increasing the contrast in post-production, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin becomes the focal point of a multilayered interrogation into complex notions of beauty, desire and the dangerous terrains, racisms, and interlinked ‘phobias’ navigated daily.
Muholi responds to these constraining narratives of history, ideologies and contemporary realities with a sinister, often tragi-comical humour, embarking, in her own words, on ‘a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of self-representation and self-expression’.
Thus, Somnyama Ngonyama represents Muholi’s personal visual memoir – an Archive of The Self – a growing compendium of photographic portraits emerging in constant dialogue with her surroundings, at once affirmation and reclamation, and testament to a myriad of tribulations brought forth by displacement and subjugation. Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi continually challenges the viewers’ perceptions while firmly asserting [her] cultural identity on her own terms.