Title: Intombi I
… in collaboration with Valerie Thomas, Paris (2014)
(Re)inventing Aesthetic and (Re)imagining Meaning:
(Re)creating Black Beauty
By Bridget Ngcobo
Zanele Muholi, a black South African visual activist standing in Paris, France stands in front of her camera and demands that we look into her face and see; take in her body and think. The confrontational nature of this photograph however exists, like much of Muholi’s work within a complex space of vulnerability and strength. Much of Muholi’s work in Faces and Phases engages the deadlock between eyes. The space between the women photographed and the viewer is always heavy with meaning, meaning produced by artist, subject and consumer. Reflective of her activism, Muholi has a way with engaging the humanity of all parties. This image is no different.
Muholi’s blackened body stands in a frame against a grey wall in the country where Sarah Baartman died. The exaggerated blackness of her body brings into sharp focus the white. The blackness of the skin between her around eyes, lips, nostrils and hairline makes me want to tear off and or wipe away the white on her face, I want to claw my way inside and see the face of Zanele Muholi in all of it’s blackened glory. Instead, Muholi against a wall in a country where Sarah Baartman, once stood, as a ‘freakshow’, a white scientists’ property, even in death; a body dismembered and on display in a museum for 150 years. Muholi stands in a questioning pose, her black body exposed, her right arm behind her head and left resting on her hip, she is standing as though her body itself were a question mark. Daring the viewer to meet the vulnerability and strength in the darkness of her gaze pupils against the piercing white of her eyes.
What does it mean to hold yourself up and look ahead as a Black South African woman?
What does it mean to while simultaneously know and questioning your beauty?
What is black beauty when it defined from behind a mask of whiteness?
The image of Muholi in France may not immediately conjure the story of Sarah Baartman, but in its overt engagement with the Black female body specifically in France it is impossible not to return to the question of history.
What does it mean to hold black femininity and beauty in your body?
What does it mean to engage that?
A French journalist viewing, the “Hottentot Venus,” Sarah remarked, “not appealing Venus especially after seeing a Medici Venus.” The history of this iconic racial and sexual figure is interwoven with the present conceptions of beauty and the Black female both at an individual and collective level.
How does a Black woman (re)imagine definitions of beauty on black bodies behind or regardless of the white mask?
How does a black woman create meanings of beauty at all?
In this photograph Muholi boldly confronts the delicate balance of vulnerability and strength of black female bodies collectively and individually.
It is said about Sarah, that even as they investigated her body after finding her, “she hung tenaciously clung to her modesty and only very reluctantly removed the traditional Khoi-Khoi apron she wore when she was publically exhibited.”
It is saddening to me that there is so little trace of Sarah the woman, I wish I knew what she thought as she took in this France and it’s people, how she thought of home, if she longed for love, did she remember that someone found her beautiful?
Did she find herself beautiful?
When they bought her bones home in 2002, what could they say not about Sarah the icon, but Sarah the woman? Through this photograph Muholi reaches into a space of complexity of confrontation around what it means to define and shape your beauty as a black woman. Through her use of color pose and expression she soundly situates herself and her viewers in a place that requires deep self-reflection on the part of any viewer, but particularly on the part of black female viewers.
Perhaps it is dangerous to single out a particular group not on Muholi’s behalf, but on my own. At the risk of being exclusionary, and still in the face of that danger I maintain, this photograph is an important call to black women. In the words of Steve Biko, ”you are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”
This image like much of Muholi’s body of work communicates the vulnerability of black female bodies not as weakness, but rather as part of the story of strength. It is undeniable that Biko’s politics regarding women cannot holistically be regarded as robust, but there is something to be said on the power of Black Consciousness, about (re)covering the lost and distorted pride, (re)creating art and activism, (re)inventing and (re)imagining meaning. I am a black woman living in post-apartheid South Africa hungrily taking in the lives and experiences of black women who exude the beauty I wish to claim as my own. I believe this Muholi’s photograph is an important call to young black South African women like myself to pay attention to the concept interiority; question the make up of our complexities. I urge young Black South African women to like Muholi’s expression question how what makes their beauty both vulnerable and strong?
What they choose to hold on to?
What they choose to let go of?
What angles they choose to expose?
Muholi’s body of work and has been able to communicate vulnerability not as weakness, but rather as part of what makes you strong. I believe the tangible way that Muholi communicates the fragility and tenacity of black womanhood both illustrates the abuses that have been meted out on the black female body while also giving voice to the journey of self-definition. To answer the question of what we want in a rich comprehensive way we should take head to the message to first acknowledge who we are, with all our contradictions and complexities. Looking internally reaching into that place that acknowledges that we do not live in a vacuum, how we see ourselves as black women does not exist untouched by history. It is through our connections with people, who question and who are living and consciously redefining myself that we learn a skill cannot be unlearned. We learn that it is possible to (re)define and (re)create meaning, even under the weight of history, perception and foisted meanings of both blackness and femininity alike.
Maseko, Zola. “The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman, “The Hottentot Venus”” African Studies Review 44.1 (2001): p130.
Biko, Steve, and Aelred Stubbs. I Write What I like. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Print.
Special Thanks for Cite Des Arts in Paris and French Institute.