The United States premiere of Autograph’s acclaimed exhibition by Zanele Muholi.
In more than 70 photographs, visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972), 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, Muholi playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. Each black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social injustice, human rights, and contested representations of the Black body.
Muholi states: “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."
By increasing the contrast in post-production, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin becomes the focal point of interrogations of beauty, pride, desire, and interlinked phobias and isms that must be navigated daily such as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism.
The photographs were taken between 2014 and 2017 in Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. In Muholi’s work, found objects are transformed from the everyday into dramatic and historically loaded props, merging the political with the aesthetic. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude while alluding to sexual politics, violence, and the often-suffocating prisms of gendered identity. Rubber tires, cable ties, or electrical cords invoke forms of social brutality and exploitation, often commenting on events in South Africa’s history. Materials such as plastic draw attention to environmental issues and global waste. Accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticized representations of African cultures. Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges viewers’ perceptions while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms.
“The Museum has presented Muholi’s visually stunning, thought-provoking photographs in original group exhibitions including Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identity (2006) and AFRICA FORECAST: Fashioning Contemporary Life (2016),” said Museum Director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., C’93. “It is a privilege to watch their career unfold over the course of more than a decade and present this work within the context of a solo exhibition.” The Museum partnered with Autograph in 2016 to present Black Chronicles II. Regarding their current collaboration, Brownlee asserts that, “Autograph shares the Museum’s commitment to presenting challenging, dynamic, and relevant exhibitions, which explore timely contemporary concerns. Somnyama Ngonyama is no exception and exemplifies our mutual engagement with contemporary practice.”
Renée Mussai, exhibition curator and Autograph’s Senior Curator and Head of Archive and Research, explains that Somnyama Ngonyama presents a compelling and visionary mosaic of identities, an exquisite empire of selves. Inviting us into a multilayered, visceral conversation, each photograph in the series, each visual inscription, each confrontational narrative depicts a self in profound dialogue with countless others: implicitly gendered, non-conforming, culturally complex and historically grounded Black bodies. It’s a great privilege to be working with the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art again, and I cannot imagine a more fitting and appropriate institution to debut our Zanele Muholi touring exhibition in the United States – especially considering the current socio-cultural climate.”
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. Most recently, 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).
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), the Guggenheim (New York), Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), Tate Modern (London), South African National Gallery (Cape Town), and others.
They are represented by Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg.
Founded in 1881, Spelman College is a leading liberal arts college widely recognized as the global leader in the education of women of African descent. Located in Atlanta, the College’s picturesque campus is home to 2,100 students.
The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art inspires and enriches the lives of the Spelman College community and the general public primarily through art by women of the African Diaspora.
The Museum’s presentation of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness is made possible by the Wish Foundation and LUBO Fund.
Major funding provided by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners under the direction of Fulton County Arts & Culture. Additional funding provided by the Massey Charitable Trust. Program support provided by the Spelman College Office of the President.
Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list