‘The stare, bold as brass
What you see is not there
What is, is I
I – Zanele Muholi’
These commanding words, by the distinguished storyteller Sindiwe Magona, are an extract from the poem ‘Black and White’, one of the twenty-six text pieces published alongside Zanele Muholi: Sonnyamma Ngonami, Hail the Dark Lioness. Muholi’s series of powerful self-portraits is the winner of the 2019 Kraszna-Krausz Best Photography Book Award.
Who is the I? Who is Zanele Muholi?
Born in 1972 in Umlazi, South Africa, Zanele Muholi is a photographer, often described as one of the most powerful visual activists of our time, and a long-time advocate for their black LGBTQ+ community.
Zanele Muholi: Sonnyamma Ngonami, Hail the Dark Lioness is a collection of one hundred black-and-white meticulously constructed images in which the artist has turned the camera on themself. As Muholi explains, ‘I am both participant and image-maker . . . confronting the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive.’
Photography often gives permission to watch, to stop, to stare and to observe. Muholi’s penetrating self-portraits permit the viewer to bear witness to a person who appears and re-appears in different guises.
Their images are performative; props are employed to evoke memories of the past and dreams of the future. Muholi is the drama, and their characters take central stage. Their black face, their eyes fixed on ours, becomes our focal point, forcing us, the viewer, to confront our political views on race, culture and identity.
One portrait is named after Muholi’s mother, Bester Muholi (1936–2009), who as Tamar Garb writes ‘worked all her adult life in the kitchens of others, raising their children and cleaning their stuff, scrubbing and scouring their pots and pans so that her hands became rough and her back became bowed with the labor and love that she gave.’
Muholi-as-Bester looks at straight at us, their gaze defiant, making it difficult, for us, the viewer, to turn away. Their hair is gripped by wooden clothes pegs, mimicking a crown. Their earlobes are adorned with the same set of clothes pegs, earrings that pinch and hurt. Around their shoulders hangs a shawl held together by yet another peg, a symbol of domestic labor. This is a love letter to the artist’s mother, this is a love letter to all the female domestic workers who spent their lives cleaning the homes of others, and to all those who suffered and survived apartheid.
Social and political resistance is integral to Muholi’s work. Each self-portrait is a commentary on a specific event in South Africa’s political history. Their gaze is always steadfast. These photographs are powerful statements of courage and endurance.
The black, dark materiality of each photograph is important, every one showing us a person who is unapologetic in their blackness and who is comfortable in their dark skin. As Muholi says, ‘By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness. 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.’
Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness is a judicious and timely statement on race, gender and identity, and as such this book has an enduring presence that will be appreciated and valued by future generations.
Artwork © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York