close up image of a face by artist Zanele Muholi


03.06.21 - 08.08.21

Zanele Muholi

The Naughton Gallery is delighted to partner with Belfast Photo Festival to present Somnyama Ngonyama, the first solo exhibition of renowned South African photographer Zanele Muholi on the island of Ireland.

One of the most acclaimed artists working today, 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”.  Describing themself as a visual activist, from the early 2000s Muholi has documented and celebrated the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. In their series, Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’), they turn the camera on themself.

In this evocative series of self-portraits, everyday objects are transformed into dramatic and historically loaded props. In staging themself as a variety of identities, archetypes, and personae, Muholi’s work poses critical questions about the politics of representation:

“In contrast to my lifelong 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 body of work I have created portraits in which I am both participant and image-maker. Somnyama Ngonyama 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. Somnyama Ngonyama 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 worthy. 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.”

“In Somnyama Ngonyama, I am using different materials that viewers can relate to if they take the time to read the images carefully and think about what these objects might mean. For example, the scouring pads and clothes pegs I use in the images that represent tributes to my mother, Bester Muholi, speak to domestic workers, labour, and servitude. 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 comment on a specific event in my life, as well as 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. Somnyama Ngonyama is one way in which I address the politics of race, racism and colonialism – and it is a way of addressing a past that still informs the present. My artistic practice offers me the opportunity to not only work creatively through these politics of the past, but also to directly link them to the present; to connect these dots. Photography for me is always first and foremost a tool of activism, driven by the idea of social change.”

Image: Zanele Muholi, Bester I, Mayotte (2015)

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