Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama

From July 8 to October 15, 2017, the Stedelijk Museum will present a selection of work from the series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’, ‘Faces and Phases’, and ‘Brave Beauties’ by South African artist Zanele Muholi.

From an insider position, Muholi photographs the black lesbian and transgender community in South Africa. Starting with her very first work, Only Half the Picture, (2006), her arresting, powerful and sometimes witty images have focused eyes on a community that, while it has been constitutionally protected since 1996, remains at risk of horrendous abuse, discrimination and ‘curative’ rape. Muholi says, “We’ve lost so many people to hate crimes… you never know if you’ll see someone again the next day.”

Muholi’s series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ (Hail the Black Lioness, 2015), is a body of work that marks a radical new step in her oeuvre. Often experimenting with dramatic poses and lighting, the artist turns the camera on herself, capturing the multiple roles that she assumes as a black lesbian woman. Through the use of high-contrast black and white tonal values, Muholi exaggerates her skin tone to emphasize her ‘blackness’.

According to Curator Hripsimé Visser, “Her self-portraits are profoundly confrontational yet witty, and searingly emotional, too. Through an inventive manipulation of props and lighting, Muholi creates historical, cultural and personally inspired versions of ‘blackness’. With this, she defies stereotypical images of the black woman and speaks to current debates about stigmatisation and stereotyping.”

For her series ‘Faces and Phases’ (2006) the artist makes emotionally charged, uncompromising portraits of lesbians. In her book of the same name, published in 2014, the images are accompanied with texts based on interviews that speak to the jeopardous reality of living in a homophobic society. Many of the photos are classic shots of self-aware yet vulnerable women and, in her words: “comprise both a visual statement and an archive, and chronicle, map, and preserve what is often an invisible community.”

The photographic sequence ‘Brave Beauties’ (2014) is an ode to the seductive art and extravaganza of transgenders, with explicit references to fashion and glamour shoots. In the series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ she plays with the highly intricate African hairstyles that often correlate with culture and identity, by sporting hair creations fashioned from the most banal household items like clothes pegs or scouring sponges.

Zanele Muholi was born in 1972, Umlazi, Durban. She studied advanced photography from the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and holds a Masters degree in documentary media from Ryerson University, Toronto. Muholi has exhibited her work extensively nationally and internationally, as well as received several awards including Fondation Blachère award at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography (2009); Index on Censorship – Freedom of Expression art award (2013); Outstanding International Alumni Award from Ryerson University (2016); and ICP Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism (2016).

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