As part of its longstanding commitment to showcase artwork made across media, time periods, and geographies, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is proud to present “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness,” an international touring exhibition organized by Autograph, London and curated by Renée Mussai. The exhibition, which opens April 15, will conclude its five-year tour in Jacksonville.
Through more than 80 black and white photographs, Muholi (South African, b. 1972), an artist and visual activist, uses their body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation in the visual archive. In “Somnyama Ngonyama,” which translates to “hail the dark lioness” in isiZulu, they playfully employ the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics.
This article contains excerpts from published discussions, with permission, between Muholi and Mussai, the London-based curator and contributor to the exhibition
(“Archive of The Self,” published by Autograph, 2017, and “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness,” published by Aperture, 2018).
Renée Mussai: Let’s begin by talking about how the images in Somnyama Ngonyama offer a ‘repertoire of resistance’: both for yourself, and also to empower others. Collectively, they represent an invitation to see yourself in a different light, a way to engage with a range of events, experiences, histories and politics through self-portraiture. How does the project sit within your wider bodies of work?
Zanele Muholi: My practice as a visual activist looks mainly at black resistance, existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGTBQI people, making sure we exist in the visual archive. The key question that I take to bed with me is: ‘What is my responsibility as a living being, as a South African citizen reading continually about hate crimes in the mainstream media?’ This is what keeps me awake at night. Thus Somnyama is not only about beautiful photographs as such, but also to bring forth political statements as well. The series touches on beauty, relates to historical incidents, giving affirmation to those who are doubting – whenever they speak to themselves, when they look in the mirror – to say, ‘You are worthy, you count, nobody has the right to undermine you: because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.’
RM: This affirmative portraiture reminds me of W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1900 Paris Albums, which similarly (though with a heteronormative focus) aimed to challenge the historically racist imaging machine.
ZM: Somnyama is my response to a number of ongoing racisms. As a series, it also speaks about occupying public spaces: how you have to be mindful all the time, when you are in certain spaces, because of your positionality, because of what others expect you to be, or because your culture is continually misrepresented. Too often I find we are being mimicked, and distorted, by the privileged other. We are here, we have our own voices, we have our own lives. Hence I am producing this photographic document to encourage people to be brave enough to occupy spaces, brave enough to create without fear of being vilified, brave enough to take on that visual text, those visual narratives. To teach people about our history, to re-think what history is all about, to re-claim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.