The tone for this large format book is set from the very first page and its Zulu title. It resonates like an affirmation of identity. The black lioness is Zanele Muholi, who brings us 96 self-portraits shot at home, in South Africa, and a variety of locales around the world where her artistic activity took her over the course of six years: Amsterdam, Berlin, Cincinnati, Kyoto, Mayotte, New York, Oslo, Paris, and more.
Born in 1972, Zanele Muholi defines herself as a “visual activist.” The causes she is most passionate about are homophobia and racial hatred. In 2002, at the age of 30, she embarked on a whole new life when she attended the Market Photo Workshop, a school founded by South African photographer David Goldblatt for young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Johannesburg. “Photography saved my life. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me,” she explains in the long interview included in the book, which also features texts from some 20 female writers and academics from around the world. Alongside her work as an artist, she co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) and, in 2009 she started Inkanyiso, an LGBTI advocacy organization whose mission can be summed up as follows: “Produce – Educate – Disseminate.”
Zanele Muholi’s award-winning work has been exhibited in the most prestigious international institutions and is inextricably linked to her activism, which is rare these days. While continuing to turn her lens on others for long-term projects such as “Faces and Phases,” which to date has gathered more than 300 portraits of Black South African lesbians, Zanele Muholi carries on with her series of self-portraits: “Exposing another person would be too difficult,” she says.
In this work, she uses her body as both object and subject to explore the various representations of the Black woman. In these auto-portraits, she embodies characters that are historical, imaginary, or inspired by personal experiences or by people close to her, beginning with her mother, Bester, who was a housekeeper all her life. To represent her, Zanele Muholi appears decked out in clothespins, scouring pads and other household utensils. In other shots, she uses pipes, tires, handcuffs, cable ties and electric wires, all symbolic objects of the enslavement and repression of people like herself.
While some of her accessories might make you smile, her brooding face takes away that impulse. For Zanele Muholi is also playing on the blackness of her skin and the rendering of the texture of her skin, most often opting for bust shots in which she’s staring directly into the camera. She never smiles because her message is serious and inquisitive. While the aesthetic dimension of her work is undeniable, “[…] it’s not just about beauty in Somnyama’s photos, but political statements,” she says. As we view one self-portrait after another, her face ends up obsessing us. However, in the end, it is no longer her that we see but a symbol.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, 212 pages, 96 illustrations printed in 3 colors, Delpire & Co editions (original edition: Aperture Foundation, 2018), 72 €. Available here.