The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is proud to present “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness”, an internationally touring exhibition organized by Autograph, London and curated by Renée Mussai. These magnificent self-portraits were taken throughout the US, and all over the world, as you will note next to each photograph.
The exhibit was brought to Jacksonville, FL due to a redirection caused by the COIVD pandemic. There has not been a more controversial display of blackness since the Augusta Savage showings from Oct. 12, 2018 to Sun., Apr. 7, 2019. The Museum will be the final venue for this exhibition in the United States.
In more than 72 self-portraits and wallpapers, celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972) uses “their” body as a canvas to confront the deeply personal politics of race and representation in the visual archive. “Their” ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates to ‘Hail The Dark Lioness’ from isiZulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. Each black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social (in)justice, human rights and contested representations of the Black body.
Muholi states, “I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. 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. Just like our ancestors, we live as Black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”
Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin (intensified through enhanced contrast applied in post-production) becomes the focal point of a profound, multilayered interrogation of beauty, pride, desire, self-care, well-being and the many interlinked phobias and isms navigated daily such as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism and sexism, to name but a few.
“Zanele Muholi’s visually arresting self-portraits compel viewers to consider timely topics such as contrast, dignity, solidarity, difference, history and activism in meaningful ways,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., the Museum’s George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs Director and Chief Executive Officer. “Each one invites deep looking and, ultimately, encourages viewers to ask themselves critical questions about empathy, courage and the power of each and every voice.”
The exhibition features photographs taken between 2012 - 2019 in cities across Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. Muholi's socially-engaged, radical brand of self-portraiture transforms found objects and quotidian materials into dramatic and historically loaded props, merging the political with the personal, aesthetics with history — often commenting on specific events in South Africa’s past, as well as urgent global concerns pertinent to our present times: scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude while alluding to sexual politics, cultural violence and the often-suffocating prisms of gendered identities. Rubber tires, cable ties or electrical cords invoke forms of social brutality and exploitation; sheets of plastic and polythene draw attention to environmental issues and global waste, while accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticized representations of African cultures and people.
Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges viewers’ perceptions while firmly asserting their cultural and sexual identity on their own terms. When you gaze upon each photo, see what is in plain sight and what might be buried in your own observations. This writer saw a surprising resemblance of Zanele Muholi to songstress Nina Simone.
About Zanele Muholi: Zanele Muholi is a visual activist and photographer based in Johannesburg. Muholi’s self- proclaimed mission is “to re-write a Black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.”
“They” (Muholi’s preferred pronoun) co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002 (www.inkanyiso.org), and in 2009 founded Inkanyiso (www.inkanyiso.org), a forum for queer and visual (activist) media. They continue to train and co-facilitate photography workshops for young women in South African townships, and engage in a variety of community supported programs.
“Zanele Muholi”: Somnyama Ngonyama,
Hail The Dark Lioness
DATES: April 15 – June 20, 2021
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
829 Riverside Avenue
Jacksonville, Florida 32204
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