Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
14 July - 28 October 2017
In her first solo exhibition in London, South African visual activist Zanele Muholi (b 1972) presents her ongoing self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama.
In more than 60 photographs Muholi uses her body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation in the visual archive.
Taken primarily in Europe, North America and Africa, each portrait asks critical questions about social justice, human rights and contested representations of the black body. Muholi’s psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their directness as she explores different archetypes and personae, and offers personal reflections.
Everyday objects are transformed into dramatic and historically loaded props, merging the political with the aesthetic. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude, while alluding to sexual politics, violence and the suffocating prisms of gendered identity. Rubber tyres, safety pins and protective goggles invoke forms of social brutality and exploitation, often commenting on events in South Africa’s history; materials such as plastic draw attention to environmental issues and global waste. Accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticised representations of African cultures.
Somnyama Ngonyama playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. By increasing the contrast in the dark complexion of her skin, Muholi interrogates complex representations of beauty and desire. Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges the viewer’s perceptions while firmly asserting her cultural identity on her own terms: black, female, queer, African.
"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
A majority of the works in the exhibition are from Muholi’s current series Somnyama Ngonyama are taken between 2014 and 2017. The isiZulu title translates into English as: Hail, the Dark Lioness.
'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