HAIL THE DARK LIONESS
In this touring exhibition by Autograph ABP, South African visual activist Zanele Muholi presents their ongoing self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning Hail, the Dark Lioness in isiZulu, one of the eleven official languages in South Africa). The exhibition comprises more than 75 photographs with Muholi using their body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation in the visual archive.
"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
Taken primarily between 2014 and 2017, each portrait in Somnyama Ngonyama poses critical questions about social justice, human rights and contested representations of the black body. Muholi's self-reflective and psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their artistry as they explore different archetypes / personae and offer visual reflections inspired by personal experiences and socio-political events.
In Somnyama Ngonyama, ready-made objects and found materials are transformed into culturally loaded props, merging the political with the aesthetic – often commenting on specific events in South Africa's recent history. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude, while simultaneously alluding to sexual politics, violence against black bodies and the suffocating prisms of gendered identity. Rubber tires, electrical cords or cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation, and powerfully evoke the plight of workers – maids, miners and members of different disenfranchised communities. Using a range of artefacts – from chopsticks, can lids and safety pins to plastic bags or polythene wrapping – Muholi draws attention to urgent environmental issues and toxic waste. Accessories such as cowrie shells or beads highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticised representations of African cultures and people as well as the global economies of migration, commerce and labour.