Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Aperture (here). Oversized hardcover, 212 pages, 100 black and white reproductions (a handful printed in silver ink on black paper), with essays, texts, poems, and other contributions by Unoma Azuah, Milisuthando Bongela, Ama Josephine Budge, Cheryl Clarke, Fariba Derakhshani, Andiswa Dlamini, Christine Eyene, Tamar Garb, Thelma Golden, Sophie Hackett, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Peace Kiguwa, Mapula Lehong, Sindiwe Magona, Napo “Popo” Masheane, Hlonipha Mokoena, Jackie Mondi, Renée Mussai, Pumelela “Push” Nqelenga, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Ruti Talmor, Christie van Zyl, Carla Williams, and Deborah Willis, and a conversation between the artist and Renée Mussai. Also includes a thumbnail image index and detailed contributor biographies. Design by Duncan Whyte. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When the long arm of art history finally catches up with the first part of the 21st century, Zanele Muholi’s powerful series of self portraits will undoubtedly be seen as one of the landmark photographic projects from these times. Succinctly put, the series engages a complex multitude of interrelated themes (race, gender, identity, politics, resistance, and activism as a start) and does so with thunderous force and intelligence. In the process, Muholi has pushed the genre of photographic self-portraiture somewhere authentically new, deftly mixing layers of historical allusion, performative creativity, and personal vulnerability.

We have written extensively about this long-term project already, reviewing gallery shows of the work in 2015 (here), and again in 2017 (here), as well as highlighting individual images on view at various art fairs around the globe. But such shows are, by definition, ephemeral, and when the time comes to gather a body of work like this one into a printed monograph, a different kind of reassessment and synthesis often takes place.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, one of the key indicators that an important photographer had “arrived” was the publication of an Aperture monograph. Since so many of the medium’s masters had been memorialized in this way by Aperture and since the publications themselves were so universally well crafted, when an Aperture monograph came out for a new or emerging artist, it was a sign that the photography establishment had effectively anointed (or confirmed) one of the important artistic voices in the next generation. With the explosion of photobook publishing in the past few decades and the consistent excellence now delivered by so many global publishers, Aperture’s power as undisputed kingmaker has been diluted somewhat, but this superlative monograph feels like a confident reaffirmation of that position.

While every self-portrait is, of course, a document of the artist’s own likeness, Muholi’s unsmiling self-portraits have a more intense presence than usual, and because of the deliberately stark contrasts of dark and light in her compositions, Muholi’s eyes command our attention. In many instances, her gaze is direct, looking straight back at the viewer with seriousness and confidence, and this approach alternately shades towards defiance, confrontation, and unapologetic strength. In other cases, her gaze feels blank, her eyes clouded, almost numb to the surroundings, or more distanced, where she has turned inward and introspective, as though lost in thought or closed off to the invasions of the outside world. And in a few, Muholi lays bare her vulnerabilities, her eyes telling us that she feels exposed or at risk, with fearfulness and bravery wrestling for dominance. Seen together, her self-portraits are active exercises in looking and seeing, the exchange consistently charged with intimacy and meaning.

Aside from a few images where Muholi is naked or wrapped in white bed sheets, most of the portraits in the series have been constructed using readymade props and objects drawn from everyday life. A flip through the images creates an exhaustive list of stuff: clothespins and metallic scrubbing pads, washing machine tubes and rubber tires, African curios and cowrie shells, belts and zip ties, South African paper currency (with Nelson Mandela’s face) and fly whisks, latex gloves and safety pins, electrical cords and travel pillows, soda tabs and plastic wrap. And each exists on multiple artistic levels – as objects chosen for their formal qualities, as reference points to Muholi’s life and personal history, or as symbols of larger tropes, motifs, and identifiers that Muholi wants to interrogate.

So while Cindy Sherman has used elaborate costumes and settings to create literally hundreds of indelible female characters in her career, none of which is actually Sherman, Muholi has in effect done the opposite – in this series, she has created dozens of versions of herself. These images aren’t characters (although a few certainly verge on caricature or parody), they are subtle slices of identity. Some are memorials or tributes; others are connections to histories both known and unknown; still others investigate roles and stereotypes; and many are visual conversations with herself, where she investigates the fluidity of her own persona. She performs as mother, sister, lover, warrior, queen, and countless others, creating a layered dialogue that stretches from past to present.

That Muholi can remain solemnly regal in a headdress of sunglasses or afro picks or a tiara made from a wooden stool or a plastic bucket is a testament to the complexity of her task. Even when she is obviously subverting or undermining assumptions, she is never after a quick joke; instead, she forces us to see the truths hidden within the ridiculous. She explores the tropes of traditional tribal imagery and pictures made of Africans for Europeans, she embraces Madonna-like shawls, wraps, and poses, she unpacks female domestic and household roles, she makes reference to historical acts of violence and oppression, and she actively challenges stereotypes of beauty and blackness. She dons the majestic mane of a lion and the grim bowl of miner’s helmet with equal aplomb, and even uses a mirror to critically look at herself with self-appraising skepticism. Her series builds up in a way that she is simultaneously teaching and learning, proclaiming and reclaiming, showing us separate facets of herself that come together in one richly complex human being.

The monograph itself has been executed with the kind of thoughtfulness and precision that this body of work deserves. The volume itself is large, allowing room for Muholi’s photographs to expand into space and feel big enough to have presence. The reproductions themselves are exquisite – tritone, with deep rich blacks and crisp whites, floated against white backgrounds in varying sizes to keep the page turns exciting. The essays (and a few of the images themselves) have been printed on black paper (of a thinner stock than the white image pages) with silver ink, reversing the tonalities and breaking up the flow into rhythmic sections. The many texts range from creative expressions, poems, and responses to Muholi’s work (and life), to critical assessments, individual image explications, and broader academic readings that provide more scholarly context; the extended interview is particularly insightful, as Muholi gives her own background to certain images and aesthetic intentions, filling in gaps in her personal story that we might not have immediately understood. As a photobook object, it feels hefty and authoritative, both modern in its design and long-lasting in its rich understated elegance.

In photobook libraries of the future, Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness will be an essential reference holding, equally well shelved among the innovative self-portraiture, the female photographers, the African photographers, the LGBTQ work, and even the activist photography – it has that much range and applicability. It’s the kind of throw down statement monograph that firmly cements the lasting importance of the project, both rightfully celebrating the photographic achievement and smartly deepening our grasp of its many complexities.

Collector’s POV: Zanele Muholi is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg (here) and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York (here). While prints from this series have been consistently hot sellers, Muholi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Zanele Muholi, Aperture

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