Zanele Muholi says if her photos were transformed into music, they'd sound traditional. Beats that can only be understood by the transgressive and politically-conscious. Those who are tuned in to the contemporary and historical politics of her homeland.
The South African visual activist works primarily with photography, videos and installations. Her ongoing self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, is an unflinching assertion of her identity as a female, lesbian and African creative.
Muholi’s art aims to educate viewers about the past. About the violence of racism past and present, the conflict that has marked South Africa’s history and the fetishisation of the black body under the Western imperialist gaze.
The photographs that make up the artist's series use her body as the canvas to tackle these questions of race, sexuality, gender and politics. In centering herself in Somnyama Ngonyama, she explains that she’s enacting a healing process. Documenting her body in defiance of forces that would rather see her erased, “I want to remember. I want to be remembered.”
It's a particularly urgent statement for Muholi in the context of the lack of visual documentation of black LGBT people. Faces and Phases, a catalogue of portraits of the black lesbian community in South Africa, is another ongoing project by the artist. She stresses the importance of "content that is created by us on us" and the need to tell stories that wouldn't ordinarily make it into the mainstream media.
But visibility comes at a cost. LGBT people in South Africa are at risk of brutal beatings, "corrective rape" and murder for being themselves. But Muholi is fearless in her artistic undertakings. In an interview with the Guardian, she stressed the urgency of her projects:
“This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities.
"...[W]e cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”
The settings of the portraits of Somnyama Ngonyama range from Africa and Europe to North America. There are more than 60 on display in the exhibition. In the photographs, Muholi experiments with personae, each photograph confronting a different archetype and entering into the contested space of the politics of representing the black body.
Muholi skilfully re-deploys tropes common in ethnographic photography and plays with contrast to highlight the dark complexion of her skin. As a result, questions of beauty and desirability are inherent within the framing of the photographs.
Mundane objects incorporated into the pieces become charged with meaning. The detritus of plastic materials enact a commentary on environmental issues and excess waste production. Beaded fly whisks and cowrie shells touch on Western othering of African culture.
The exhibition is an important addition to the visual documentation of queer black lives, and illustrates the necessity of having platforms to share their own narratives. Muholi had this to say to aspiring black LGBT artists: "come forward and speak on our issues and give each other support whenever necessary. Because it's harsh out there."
Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness is at Autograph ABP, London EC2A from 14 July - 28 October. The exhibition is free.