In producing Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Zanele Muholi (b.1972) took a self-portrait every day for a year, documenting and responding to the injustices she witnessed in her everyday life, as well as those unfolding across the world. The project is still ongoing, contributing to a vital interrogation of race and representation. Currently on show at Fotografiska, Stockholm, in partnership with the charity Autograph ABP, it is a work of visual activism that poses as many questions as it answers.
The series is, above all, a powerful assertion of identity: “I’m reclaiming my blackness,” she says, “which I feel is continually performed by the privileged “other’” … Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” Although there is definitely performativity here, it is strictly upon her own terms, and is utilised to further the narratives she builds. The props used in this evocative portraiture are individually telling: domestic objects reference servitude and sexual politics, while electrical cords and cable ties allude to exploitation and brutality. Taken together, they make for a skilful exploration (and dismantling) of exoticised Western depictions of African culture.
Despite being a highly personal visual memoir, the broader significance of the images is evident throughout. Race and gender are examined alongside environmental concerns, all-encroaching human rights issues, and the global capitalist economy. Whether posing wrapped in animal hide, with a headpiece crafted from banknotes, gazing out from the mangled plastic wrapping of her suitcase, or wearing plastic tubing as an apparently strangulatory accessory, the symbolism is consistently striking. These are not photographs that require a lot of hard work to grasp: they are immediately impactful and all the more important for it.
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1. Bester I, Mayotte, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.