Somnyama Ngonyama. The title of Zanele Muholi’s series of photographs pulls you in like an incantation. Somnyama Ngonyama. Words in isiZulu, the artist’s mother tongue, accompany every image. More than titles, they are one-word poems that work in concert with the image to evoke a web of associations, sensations, and memories of a body that dares to exhibit itself, expose itself to our gaze, and even to hatred. Somnyama Ngonyama, or Hark the Dark Lioness, is an ongoing visual autobiography added onto daily since 2012. A selection of ninety-six images is published in book form by Aperture.
The cover of the oversize volume confronts us with a nearly life-size three-quarter portrait of a black statue of liberty. The encounter is unmediated by a title or the author’s name. The matt hardboard seems to shimmer when handled, revealing the model’s skin texture and the fine wale of the dark denim cloth wrapped around her shoulders. On her head, this figure of liberty is wearing a crown of scouring-pads strung together. The heightened contrast of the photograph makes them seem pitch-black: only when light hits across the page at a certain angle can we make out the tangle of steel-wool fibers. Rather than an appeal to freedom, the statue is a reminder of the unfreedom perpetuated today. Zanele Muholi is breaking aesthetic boundaries to produce a work of art and activism that requires immense courage, self-discipline, and the rare ability to extract a grain of humor from even the most painful situation.
When the subject looks back
Muholi’s photographs are often anthropology in reverse. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “scientific” perception forged stereotypes that still haunt our vision by trapping people of color in the role of exoticized, most often nameless, subjects of study, seemingly defined only by their “otherness.” Muholi adopts the trappings of ethnographic clichés (in all senses of the word) and turns them to ridicule.
Thus in Senzekile II, she is wearing a heavy necklace of interlocked faux-fur key chains, the ringed foxtail fobs bobbing about her shoulders. A high ponytail is supporting a stack of scouring pads, their silver shine resonating with the metal snap-hooks around her neck. Similarly, in Bhekezakhe, Muholi explores the clichés of tribal dress. What appears to be a straw headdress and collar are in fact nylon cable ties twisted around a braid of black-and-white shoelaces. Playful and subversive, this image points to a more sinister reality of spurious arrests and killings, criminalization of black bodies which challenge the imposed norms, and incarceration, both physical and metaphorical. Muholi’s gaze, firm and vulnerable, defies the viewer to sustain it.
Many self-portraits are a direct response to current events or personal experiences. Zithulele, appears to express frustration with race- and gender-role assignment. Shot against the background of leathery oak leaves, Muholi is weighed down by a snarled mass of branches: they are braided into her hair, straddling her shoulders, knotted around her chest. Literally caged in, the artist’s face looks fatigued. A tear is trailing down her cheek. Zithulele, in isiZulu, means ‘they are silent’. The image carries memories of generations of Africans who labored and suffered without a word.
One such figure of a laborer, to which Muholi returns again and again, is the maid. Bester I is one of many tributes to Zanele’s mother, Bester, who worked her whole life as a domestic servant to a white family. With a woven rug for a cape and wooden clothespins for fashion accessories, her lips whitened with toothpaste, Muholi conveys an almost childlike innocence combined with a force of resilience. Paraphernalia of household chores populate Zanele Muholi’s photographs: the ever-metamorphosing scouring pads, rubber gloves, vacuum hoses, clothespins, safety pins, their meanings multiplied. The word MaID, a visual pun on “My Identity,” is also a term Maholi uses to describe her project of exploration of black, gendered identity.
The image of the self
In ZaKi, Muholi seems to wonder about the possibility of a racial minority in another highly homogenized culture. Imitating classical Japanese photography, she puts on a kimono and poses kneeling between the panels of a sliding door. While many portraits play with black-and-white contrasts—the block pattern of the kimono or the stripes of the cotton rug in Bester I, or the lighter accents in Senzekile II or Kodwa —Muholi’s photographs are above all a celebration of blackness. The title image, Somnyama IV, is a nude self-portrait representing the artist coiffed with a regal mane of unruly dreadlocks. In the night of the photograph, her skin appears to emanate its own inner light. The person we face in each of Muholi’s images seems to cry out: I am a lioness, I roar in the name of those who have no words.
By Ela Kotkowska
Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama
Aperture, 2018, 212pp.