There are arguably only a handful of artists working in the contemporary art world today whose work is as visually compelling as that of Zanele Muholi, the self-proclaimed visual activist and photographer. The artist’s award-winning work investigates the fraught relationship between post-apartheid South Africa and its queer community, who, despite being constitutionally protected since 1996, remain a constant target of abuse and discrimination. In Muholi’s own words, their self-appointed mission with the Hail the Dark Lioness series is to “encourage individuals in [the queer] community” to be “brave enough to occupy spaces — brave enough to create without fear of being vilified… To encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras and weapons to fight back.”
Zanele Muholi: The Road to Visual Activism
Zanele Muholi (they/them) was born in 1972 in Umlazi, Durban, a township on the East coast of South Africa. The youngest of eight children, their father passed away shortly after Muholi was born, and their mother, a domestic worker employed by a white family for over four decades, was frequently forced to leave her children in the care of their extended family. In their youth, Muholi found work as a hairdresser, but their activist nature and profound commitment to tackling injustice led them to co-found the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, an organization formed to protect the Black lesbian community.
Zanele Muholi entered the world of photography after taking part in the Market Photo Workshop in 2003, a training course aimed at supporting young photographers from disadvantaged backgrounds set up by South African photographer David Goldblatt. A year later, Muholi’s photography was the subject of an exhibition entitled Visual Sexuality at Johannesburg Art Gallery. The body of work, which captures Black, lesbian, and transgender people and practices with enormous sensibility, was without precedent in South Africa — a country that had only recently begun to heal from its severely segregational policies and had long been disconnected from its queer community. Research released in 2017 revealed that despite same-sex marriage becoming legal in 2006, 49% of Black members of the queer community in South Africa are likely to know someone who has been murdered for being LGBT.
This striking first series set the tone for Muholi’s career and offered a personal perspective on the immeasurable challenges faced by the artist’s community on a day-to-day basis. The series’ dedication to documenting individuals as participants rather than as subjects, and ability to portray the depth and diversity of South African people, swiftly positioned Muholi at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, where they have remained ever since.
The Self-Portraits: A Manifesto of Resistance
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In 2014, Zanele Muholi began working on what would become an ongoing series of black-and-white self-portraits entitled Somnyama Ngonyama, or Hail the Dark Lioness. Taken in cities across Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa, each of the 365 portraits represent a day in the year. The arresting photographs challenge stereotypes of the Black woman whilst channeling Muholi’s own lived experience as a queer woman of color. The photographic archive has been the subject of major exhibitions in London, Paris, Berlin, and Umeå amongst others, and was also published as a monograph with written contributions from more than twenty curators, poets, and authors.
Zanele Muholi acts as both participant and image-maker in Somnyama Ngonyama, using their camera to respond to pressing issues concerning racism, sexism, and homophobia. In each photograph, the artist confrontationally faces the lens, forcing the viewer to stare back. Muholi asks us to question, examine and ultimately challenge our deeply entrenched, biassed view of the world. Who has been excluded from the histories we have been taught? Why have Black women so rarely been part of the narrative? Muholi’s stark expression penetrates the lens, encouraging us to confront the mainstream systems of representations we are surrounded by yet so often forget to question.
The Alter Egos
By adopting hundreds of alter egos, Zanele Muholi’s psychologically charged Somnyama Ngonyama self-portraits offer a nuanced and multifaceted alternative to stereotypical images and narratives of Black women. The visual activist masterfully refers to elements of classical portraiture, fashion photography, and stereotypical tropes of ethnographic imagery, but there is more to these portraits than their immaculate composition. In each black and white frame, Muholi uses symbolic props taken from their immediate environment to comment on identity politics and the consequences of Eurocentrism.
The images depict Zanele Muholi adopting numerous personas by wearing a striking variety of clothing and accessories that highlight the cultural limitations imposed on Black women. What is immediately clear is that the artist has given each prop careful consideration. Muholi decorates themselves with handcuffs, rope, electric wire, and latex gloves, challenging the oppressive standards of beauty that so often tend to ignore people of color.
In one of the portraits, for instance, the artist covers themselves in plastic wrapping taken from their suitcase, a reference to the racial profiling that people of color are frequently subjected to when crossing borders. In another, Muholi wears a miner’s helmet and goggles, a reminder of the 2012 Marikana massacre in which thirty-four South African miners were brutally killed by police while protesting for better working conditions and higher pay.
Despite Muholi’s various guises and sometimes humorous ensembles, what remains consistent throughout the entire series is the fact that the artist never smiles in front of the camera. Rather, Muholi’s steadfast expression becomes the focal point of every image, reminding the viewer of the serious message behind each photograph and the importance of fighting back against harmful stigmatization and stereotyping.
A recurring character throughout the series is ‘Bester,’ named after the artist’s mother, Bester Muholi. In Bester I, Muholi paints their lips white and adorns themselves with household utensils in order to convey their mother’s life-long dedication to domestic labor. The artist dons an intricate headpiece and earrings made of clothespins; a shawl is draped over their shoulders, held together by yet another peg. In another image, Bester II, Muholi stares directly at the viewer with unsettling intensity while wearing what resembles an ostrich-feather duster as a headdress, another reference to domesticity.
Speaking in an interview for LensCulture, Zanele Muholi reflects on the self-portraits inspired by their mother, who passed away in 2009. “[My mother] worked as a domestic worker for 42 years, and was forced to retire due to ill health. After retirement, she never lived long enough to enjoy her life at home with her family and grandchildren. [These] photos are also a dedication to all the domestic workers around the globe who are able to fend for their families despite meagre salaries and make ends meet.” Through these photographs, Muholi pays homage to their mother and to South Africa’s countless female domestic workers, whose resilience and servitude are rarely, if ever, given the credit it deserves. By reimagining them as powerful forces to be reckoned with, Muholi gives these women a voice and retrieves their lived experiences from the margins of society.
Zanele Muholi and Reclaiming Blackness
The exaggerated, high-contrast black and white tonal values of each monochrome image in the Somnyama Ngonyama series are symbolic of Zanele Muholi’s deliberate affirmation of their identity. In each of the impeccably rendered self-portraits, the artist draws attention to their dark, illuminated skin. The photos have been digitally amplified so as to exaggerate Muholi’s skin tone, which appears to almost glisten against each stark background. In Muholi’s own words, “By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness. 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.”
The artist asks viewers to question the ways in which beauty is defined, and encourages us to free ourselves of society’s oppressive aesthetics. Through their self-portraits, Zanele Muholi turns traditionally negative connotations surrounding darkness on their head. By doing so, Muholi hopes that the series will inspire people of color who have faced racism, sexism, and homophobia, to intentionally and unapologetically take up space in the world. “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.’”
Zanele Muholi’s deep-rooted commitment to addressing social injustice through visual activism has earned them a reputation as one of the most influential artists in the contemporary art world. Eschewing the labels of ‘artist’ and ‘activist,’ Muholi has proved to be more than either of those categories. The emotionally charged, searingly confrontational Somnyama Ngonyama series is a brilliant example of how Muholi is able to address stigmatization, stereotypes, and identity politics through their work. Through their inventive use of props, theatrical lighting, and thought-provoking historical references, Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits allow for self-invention in a world that so often attempts to limit expressions of Black and queer identity.