Zanele Muholi:
Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness

31 Jan - 1 Jun 2020

Past Touring Exhibition
Curated by Renée Mussai



The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art
102 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA  02138

past exhibition

This exhibition is now closed. View our current exhibitions here


Our powerful exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness is touring to The Cooper Gallery at Harvard University.

In more than 80 self-portraits, celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972) uses their body as a canvas to confront the deeply personal politics of ‘race’ and representation in the visual archive.

Each black and white portrait asks critical questions about social (in)justice, human rights, and contested representations of the Black body.

“I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being Black; it is my skin, and the experience of being Black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as Black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear”

— Zanele Muholi

Drawing on unique experiences, history and cultural memory, Muholi’s critically acclaimed ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama – which translates to ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’ from isiZulu, one of the official languages of South Africa – playfully deploys the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics.

Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin is intensified through enhanced contrast applied in post-production, and becomes the focal point of a profound, multilayered interrogation of existential notions of ‘blackness and being’, beauty and pride – critically visualizing matters of self, care and perseverance in the light of the many interlinked phobias and isms navigated daily, especially by persons identifying as black, brown, female, queer, non-binary or trans: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, to name but a few.

Here, the camera becomes a cathartic tool of action and reclamation, and photography a therapeutic mode of survival. Taken between 2012 and 2019 in diverse locations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, Muholi's socio-cultural radical brand of self-portraiture transforms found objects and quotidian materials into dramatic, historically loaded visual ‘props’ – merging the political with the personal.

At times commenting on specific events in South Africa’s past and its present, or drawing on their own family history, the works also point to universal concerns pertinent to our current times through a range of inherent symbolisms: scouring pads, blankets, and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude while alluding to sexual politics, cultural violence, and the often suffocating prisms of gendered identities. Rubber tires, cable ties, or electrical cords invoke forms of social unrest, brutality and capitalist exploitation. Plastic tubes, hose pipes and polythene draw attention to environmental issues and global waste, as well as migration crises, and climate change; while accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight continual Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticized representations of African cultures.

Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi – whose preferred gender-neutral pronouns are they / them / theirs – challenges viewers’ perceptions while firmly asserting cultural and sexual identities on their own terms.

“Somnyama Ngonyama presents a compelling and visionary mosaic of visual identities, an exquisite empire of selves. Inviting us into a multilayered, visceral exchange of “gazes”, each photograph in this ongoing series of auto-portraits, each visual inscription, each archival intervention, each confrontational narrative depicts a self in profound dialogue with countless others: implicitly gendered, resolutely non-conforming, culturally complex and historically grounded Black bodies… Muholi’s bold creative practice – both activist and remedial at its core – enables art, advocacy and human rights to converse symbiotically, especially poignant considering the current socio-cultural climates unfolding globally.” - Renée Mussai, Curator

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previous acclaim

about the artist

Zanele Muholi is a visual activist and photographer based in Johannesburg. Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission is “to re-write a Black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.”

Muholi co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002 and Inkanyiso (www.inkanyiso.org), a forum for queer and visual (activist) media, in 2009. Muholi studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and in 2009 completed an MFA: Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto. In 2013, they became an honorary professor at the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste Bremen.

Muholi was bestowed France’s highest cultural honor, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts des Lettres. They were included in the South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) and took part in the São Paolo Biennial (2010) and documenta 13, Kassel (2013).  Muholi has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the 2018 Royal Photographic Society Awards and Aperture has received the 2018 Lucie award for Book Publisher of the Year for their work on the artist's latest publication, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.

Muholi was included in the South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) and took part in the São Paolo Biennial (2010) and documenta 13, Kassel (2013). Recent solo exhibitions include the Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Rencontres D’Arles (2016); and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2017). Their photographs are represented in the collections of Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Guggenheim, New York; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Walther Collection New York/Neu-Ulm; Tate Modern, London; and others.

Muholi is represented by Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

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supported by

Banner image: Zanele Muholi, Bester I, Mayotte, 2015  © the artist. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.