Zanele Muholi has a passionate, no-holds-barred approach to portraiture as an act of political activism. Muholi — who prefers the pronoun they — tells ArtsATL, “Most of my work is about race.” The South African queer community from which they hail has been a recurring subject. Wielding empowerment through challenging norms, their reclamation of queer and feminist representation facilitates liberation for South Africa’s LGBTQ community and culture.
Muholi’s acclaimed exhibition of more than 70 stunning self-portraits, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, organized by Autograph, London and curated by Renée Mussai, runs at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art from September 14 through December 8. ArtsATL spoke with Muholi in advance of the opening.
ArtsATL: What initially motivated you to become involved with photography?
Zanele Muholi: Frustration and personal experiences led me to start questioning representation of people in my community. I questioned the absence of beautiful black people in the mainstream media depicted positively. I longed for something different from the Apartheid-era images of black people and violence.
ArtsATL: You’ve used your lens to create images that are both personal and political. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your work?
Muholi: My work is on visual activism, looking at visual politics, dealing with issues that are not common in mainstream media, especially the lives of sexual minorities. I’m not sure how many people are using their daily lens to look at issues including gender-based violence and LGBTQ weddings. It was that drive to document and archive without being commissioned that forced me to start producing that particular content. The work is not only for me but also for the larger community — including scholars who use some of my work for education — but reaches the public as well.
ArtsATL: What is the spirit of the “dark lioness” you are reviving in your series?
Muholi: The point of Somnyama Ngonyama is to confront the politics of race in ways that it’s never been done before. I reference different personal incidents in which I found myself displaced, rebuked or undermined. I use objects and materials to make connections to these particular cases. The spirit that I would like to instill is the importance of naming and giving names to portraits. Many historical black portraits were projected without names, making only the photographer prominent.
ArtsATL: What has the experience of the South African queer community been?
Muholi: Experiences differ for individuals based on race, location, age, class, educational background and surrounding communities. What is important is ensuring that nobody is violated. When incidents occur, we are forced to take action, by documenting and sharing with service providers and stakeholders who are hands-on. Our most recent documentation is the march organised under #TheTotalShutdown Movement which took place on August 1, 2018, nationally.
ArtsATL: Why has it been important for you to redefine and reclaim standards of beauty through your portraiture?
Muholi: It’s important to create beautiful, black images to counter racism’s distortion, which led many to doubt their beauty and existence we possess as black people. The portraits featured in Somnyama Ngonyama aim to reclaim what continues to be denied to us. We still lack portraits and narratives of black beauties in mainstream magazines. Those who have made it to magazine covers go on to become an inspiration to many in our communities. As black people, we possess so much talent and brilliance. It is important to project that beautifully, without fear of being vilified and displaced. Now is the time for us to reclaim spaces wherever possible.
Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness runs at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art from September 14 through December 8. Muholi will speak about their work in conversation with exhibition curator Renée Mussai, at an opening reception on September 14.