Somnyama Ngonyama, Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness, is a photographic series by the South African visual activist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972). In the artist’s words, the series invites the viewer on “a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of self-representation and self-expression.”
Taken in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa between 2014 and 2017, each portrait is distinct and poses critical questions about social injustice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body. Muholi skillfully employs conventions of classical portraiture and fashion photography and mixes in tropes of ethnographic imagery to establish different archetypes and personae. A meaningful name for each of the 76 portraits is given in isiZulu, the first language of the artist who now lives in Johannesburg.
The portraits often rely on found materials, which become culturally loaded props. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude. Rubber tires, electrical cords, and cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation. Collectively, the portraits evoke the plight of workers: maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities. Likewise, plastics draw attention to urgent environmental issues and toxic waste, while cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight cliche´d, exoticized representations of African people. The contrast of Muholi’s skin is enhanced in post-production to become a focal point for questioning beauty, pride, and the interlinked phobias and -isms of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism that are navigated daily.
In Muholi’s personal visual memoir—an archive of the self—the artist often gazes defiantly at the camera, challenging viewers while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms. These self-reflective and psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their exploration of the constraints of history, ideologies, and contemporary realities.
About the Artist
Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) 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 SA 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, 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.