Zanele Muholi
Somnyana Ngonyama

With the series Somnyama Ngonyama, I have decided to turn the camera on

myself. In contrast to my life-long project of documenting members of my black

LGBTI community in South Africa and beyond, one in which I normally have the

privilege of witnessing participants’ presentation of themselves according to their

own self-image, with this new work I have created portraits in which I am both

participant and image-maker.

Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’) is an unflinchingly

personal approach I have taken as a visual activist to confronting the politics of

race and pigment in the photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation

through portraiture. The entire series also relates to the concept of MaID (‘My

Identity’) or, read differently, ‘maid’, the quotidian and demeaning name given to all

subservient black women in South Africa.

Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, I have portrayed myself in

highly stylised fashion using the performative and expressive language of theatre.

The black face and its details become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question

their desire to gaze at images of my black figure.

The visual variety depicted in the series references the histories of black and white

fashion photography and of black and white portraiture. Each and every photo

captured in this series is a commentary on a specific event in South Africa’s

political history, from the advent of the mining industry, to the fame or infamy of the

‘Black Madonna’, to the recent massacre of miners at Marikana; from family to

society and back again.

By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, 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. As Audre Lorde so eloquently put it in her poem,

‘A Litany for Survival’:

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak


we were never meant to survive

— Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems

One of the realities that I face as a South African visual activist is being forced to

make a living outside this country. For a project to be well executed I have to live

on the road where most of the work in this series was produced – dashing from

New York to Florence to Nottingham, then to Oslo and Liverpool, back home for a

week in Johannesburg, and then off to Ann Arbor, Detroit and New York – as was

the case over the past three months. This shuttling around sometimes make me

feel disoriented, disconnected and almost homeless. The culturally dominant

images of black women start to infiltrate my soul and function as a constant

reminder that such images still inform how black women are perceived here and

now. One way that I deal with this exoticised self/other is to exorcise those images

through my photography.

These self-portraits have been captured in different continents: America, Africa and

Europe; in the cities of Amsterdam, Charlottesville, Oslo, Umbria, Syracuse, New

York, Malmo, Gothenburg, Johannesburg, Paris, Durban, London, Mayotte,

Florence and Gaborone. My aim is to mark memories and connections I made with

those places and through my interactions with people there. I created materials

and used found objects that expressed my moods. All the materials utilised in the

portraits have their own primary functions. I focused on senses such as hands

touching and eyes penetrating (unsettling eye contact) while producing the work.

In Somnyama Ngonyama, I have embarked on a discomforting self-defining

journey, rethinking the culture of the selfie, self-representation and self-expression.

I have investigated how photographers can question and deal with the body as

material or mix it with objects to further aestheticise black personhood. My abiding

concern is, can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in

society and the position/s that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter?

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