Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) is an incredible collection of Muholi’s self portraits, rendered huge, capturing and taking control of the colonial imaginings of black female bodies, as domestic workers, slaves, witches and soothsayers, making them all her own and forcing viewers to confront her power, her strength, her gaze, on her own terms.
The photographs are powerful, and the collection is absorbing, difficult, confrontational. I wasn’t aware of it before Charcoal Book Club included it as selection for August 2018, and am once again thankful to be a part of Charcoal.
As Muholi mentions in an interview, included on pages 176-196, her work:
looks at black resistance—existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGBTQIA and gender-nonconforming individuals making sure we exist in the visual archive. …what is my responsibility as a living being—as a South African citizen reading continually about racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the mainstream media? This is what keeps me up at night. Thus Somnyama is not only about beautiful photographs, as such, but also about bringing forth political statements. The series touches on beauty and relates to historical incidents, giving affirmation to those who doubt whenever they speak to themselves, whenever they look in the mirror, to say, “You are worth. You count. nobody has the right to undermine you—because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.
If, in previous series, Muholi turned her lens to individuals and communities, in Somnyama Ngonyama she turns it entirely on herself, and harnesses silver gelatin to render her, at times, virtually invisible, lacking any sort of contour or shape beyond the brilliant whites of her eyes as they glare or smirk or accuse or judge or wink knowingly; at other times glowing, shimmering off the page, drawing attention to her musculature, the texture of her skin and its obvious material presence, even on the flat, 2d pages of the book.
Many of the self portraits include headdresses, recalling African masks and statues found ripped from their context in museums around the world, but made of, for example, metal scouring pads, foam blocks and headphones, latex gloves, chopsticks, safety or clothes pins, bicycle tires, inner tubes, markers, various fabrics, and other unidentified items. Sometimes, she shrouds herself with heavy white sheets, or printed fabrics, or massive wigs, or she hides among African masks. Others are full body, reclining/monumental nudes, recalling the old masters, but with a twist, reclaimed and fully owned or controlled: The Naked Maja is no longer inviting; now she accuses. Who are you to look at me?
There’s a bit of Cindy Sherman in Muholi’s work, some of the same Feminist concerns, but also confronting racism, colonialism, and all the things bound up in historical representations and imaginings of black women, and Somnyama Ngonyama needs to be a part of your library.
Overall, Somnyama Ngonyama earns 4.7 stars.
In addition to the aforementioned interview, conduced with Renee Mussai, the book contains 24 short studies, poems, and essays on Muholi, Somnyama and her other work, all of which give further insight into the work and its position in the world. My perspective on it, as a straight white male from the United States, is not the final word on it, by any stretch, and the various authors included, all female, have much more to say, and with much more authority, much more convincingly, than anything I can write here. It’s all worth a read, and contributes to the book, though the self portraits are strong enough to stand on their own. The Black Lioness doesn’t need any help.
Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Black Lioness) is available from Aperture, Charcoal, and other online retailers, and you should definitely pick up a copy before they all go away. Muholi is active on Instagram and Twitter, and her blog is full of articles on African-American identity, representations of slavery in art, and other topics, and her organization Inkanyiso focuses on LGBTQIA performance and activism, so go check her out.
And, really, pick up a copy of Somnyama Ngonyama, and Hail the Black Lioness!