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Zanele Muholi’s Memoir and Manifesto

Visual activist Zanele Muholi, acclaimed for their portraits of the South African LGBTQ community and their work to combat homophobic violence in South Africa, turns the camera on themselves in their new book titled Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness. (Editor’s note: Muholi now goes by the gender pronoun “they.”) Part visual autobiography and part political manifesto, the book features 100 self-portraits Muholi made using props close at hand—yarn, plastic, tape and safety pins, to name just a few items.

Muholi founded Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media, and co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women. Self-identifying as an activist rather than an artist, Muholi began the “Somnyama Ngonyama” series to process feelings about their own infuriating (and endless) encounters with racism—while crossing borders or checking into hotels, for instance—as well as their outrage over the steady stream of news accounts of hate crimes, homophobia and other violence directed at people of color. For instance, Muholi poses for one self-portrait in plastic wrap pulled from a suitcase to represent how they’re always made to feel like trash when getting a visa or passport stamp. In another image, Muholi wears a miner’s hat and goggles as a response to the 2012 Marikana massacre, during which police killed 34 striking miners.

Some of the images reflect more intimate aspects of Muholi’s personal history. A self-portrait wearing a clothespin headdress and earrings, for example, is a tribute to their mother, who was a domestic worker. A nude self-portrait, made while embracing inflated plastic bags, was inspired by life-threatening fibroid removal surgery they underwent in 2016.

Muholi shows vulnerability and a sense of silent suffering in many of the portraits, no doubt to convey how chronic, arbitrary violence against black bodies feels, and the toll it takes. There’s no mistaking the message: Muholi is openly confronting the insidious history of colonialism and racism, with intent to provoke viewers: some into recognizing their own complicity, others into standing up to the systematic violations. As Muholi explains in a statement about the work, “I am producing this photographic document to encourage people to be brave enough to occupy spaces, brave enough to create without fear of being vilified….To teach people about our history, to re-think what history is all about, to re-claim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.”

The book includes an introduction by Renée Mussai, as well as context and commentary about selected images from Deborah Willis, Unoma Azuah M. Neelika Jayawardane and more than a dozen other curators, poets and authors.

—David Walker

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
100 images, 224 pages

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