Text by Jackie Mondi
Photos by Lerato Dumse & Terra Dick
Indeed, I do tread lightly around Zanele! You see, I am a reluctant or rather self-conscious writer, but Zanele somehow manages to ignore my protestations with a stern but ego-boosting, “Bhala Mzala. Your writing gives me life!” So, how can you not write after an internationally acclaimed photographer says that to you? Anyway, I am so glad that she got me to bhala about Somnyama Ngonyama from its early days!
Look at where we are now!
Congratulations, my friend and thank you for making me part of this absolutely beautiful work of art. Thank you to Professor Mokoena for inviting me to speak here tonight. It is an absolute honour!
Zanele calls this an archive of the self but this is book is that and so much more! Look at Nomalandi, for example, in light of Tito Mboweni’s Medium Term Budget Speech yesterday, the falling rand, the looming downgrade, etc. So, you see, this is much bigger than Zanele. You can also see that this project is not limited to the ligibiti as Binyavanga Wainaina calls the LGBTIQ+ movement that Zanele is so passionate about. It is about the struggle to fight against the erasure of our history and our very existence. At first glance you might think this is biographical but then once you immerse yourself in the images, you forget about Zanele and it is just you and the images, a different perspective emerges. Let me share the thoughts that went through my mind when I viewed the images for the first time at the Stevenson Gallery.
Somnyama IV. The title photograph is an image in the darkest shade of black that it subverts even the most noble intentions in the “I don’t see colour, I see people” platitude. It forces you to think about your perceptions of and towards blackness. Is black beautiful? But what is beauty and who decides? If white symbolises purity is black therefore symbolic of grime? What about the mane? Do lionesses have manes? Could this be about the centre of contestation that black hair has become? What is it about black hair that makes it so contested? This bold image is a no holds barred emphatic declaration of the power of blackness and so is the name, Somnyama Ngonyama, a name you cannot say without bowing and raising your arms as you would when greeting a royal persona; as in: Bayede!
Mfana. Who is this boy?
Is this image autobiographical? Is this just a random name or a deliberate attempt to get us thinking about our perception of gender? Perhaps this image attempts to explore the ambiguities pertaining to gender and sexuality; getting us to think about the identities that lie along the continuum of femininity on the one end and masculinity on the other. But we tend to get too preoccupied with these ambiguities as we stereotypically view what is different as deviant. This clouds our judgement and causes us to turn a blind eye towards the injustices experienced by those whom we deem untermensch in our hateful heteronormative world…
Thulani. What do you say when a country turns on its people? Never, not even in our wildest nightmares would we have imagined that eighteen years into our democracy would we witness a massacre so callous it would evoke the harrowing memories of Sharpeville, 21 March 1960. Thulani was a mineworker at the Lonmin Platinum Mine who was murdered in cold blood on 16 August 2012 together with 33 of his colleagues for demanding a decent wage. Zanele could not hold her peace; she could not be quiet about this darkest sport on our democracy which will take generations to erase.
Bester IV. My absolute favourite. Bester is the name of a domestic worker who has spent her life cleaning homes she would never own, looking after the madam’s children while hers had to fend for themselves and cooking food she would only eat as scraps from the pots as she readied herself to scour them clean with a skuurpot. Bester’s head is adorned with balls of skuurpot. The skuurpot was a permanent feature in my mother’s kitchen when I was growing up, together with its companions, steel wool and sunlight soap bar. These tormented me in my childhood, scouring pots with skuurpot and soap and then buffing them to a brilliant shine with the steel wool. This was hard work. I hated the skuurpot even more, especially towards the end of its lifespan when the metal strands started unravelling and would prick and scratch your hands as you used it to clean pots. But, here Zanele has transformed this torture instrument into something beautiful. Zanele put all the domestic workers and all of us who have ever struggled with skuurpot on a world stage! This was powerfully validating for me. It affirmed that we are people and our lives are still significant, despite all the scouring that our bodies and our souls have had to endure. And, we are still the dark lionesses because that is one thing you cannot scrub off with a skuurpot of any kind.
So, I invite you to explore this dynamic publication, which is about the essence of life.
It is the story of love, joy, loss, pain, falling and rising again. It is about the indomitable human spirit that is embodied in Sindile. That spirit, which is in you too, is what we call humanity. Bona holds up the mirror, do you see yourself?