Zanele Muholi's Confrontational Gaze
As a photographer who has extensively documented South Africa’s LGBTQ community, Zanele Muholi’s self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama (‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’) is a fascinating new direction that creates an interesting conversation between her two major works. For artists who primarily work in portraiture, the self portrait presents a unique opportunity to both expand on the conceptual language of their work while also departing from the documentary responsibility involved in creating images of others.
Faces and Phases is an ongoing series of intimate portraits of individuals of the LGBTQ community. Another series, started in 2014, Brave Beauties, depicts triumphant portraits of trans women in South Africa. It is currently on view for the first time in New York at Yancey Richardson Gallery. Both of these series illustrate Muholi’s tireless dedication to documenting and representing one of the most marginalized communities, and the violent discrimination they face. Her desire to create a photographic archive of black queer South Africa is reflected in the sheer scale of a series like Faces and Phases, which began in 2006. This is continued through her non-profit organization Inkanyiso that promotes visual art, media advocacy and visual literacy for the queer community. These portraits explore the use of props and clothing in self-fashioning and identity construction, but first and foremost, they act as visual record of this marginalized community, and sometimes even a record of the violence enacted upon the bodies of these individuals.
Muholi has described self-portraiture as a confrontation with the internal, bordering on violence. Her cohort of archetypal characters act as a map of the history of both the artist’s life and the larger political sphere in South Africa; the portraits themselves were taken in various locations across the globe. One main element of Somnyama Ngonyama is the enhanced contrast of Muholi’s skin to create a shiny opaque blackness. This effect is at once captivating and furthermore, it seeks to correct the negative association of blackness so predominant to the society in which she grew up. It also brings to mind the inherent racial bias of photographic and film technology, albeit using this conceptually to her advantage.
The process of binding the body is a recurring element in Somnyama Ngonyama. Using otherwise mundane materials that Muholi pieces together, she transforms them into symbolic and utterly unrecognizable adornments of the body and hair. Viewers are met with Muholi’s piercing gaze in many of the self portraits, in a way that demands attention, recognition and most importantly, ownership of the viewing process. Muholi’s portraits elicit the question, “can the act of viewing and photographing the black body truly be disconnected from the colonial gaze?” By positioning her own body in front of the lens, Muholi works out these personal and political conflicts on the surface of her skin. One gets the sense of the type of violence the artist is referring to when creating self portraits, and also the powerful urgency in bearing witness through the lens.