To name ourselves rather than be named, we must first see ourselves – Lorraine O’grady
When thinking portraiture, Somnyama Ngonyama is a persistent point of reference.
When questioning notions of self-identification, I refer back to this haunting work as though the journey were a pilgrimage. It serves as a subtle lesson in power. How to defy it. How to speak back at it in ways that allow new ways of being in the world to emerge.
Somnyama Ngonyama introduced me to Zanele Muholi’s oeuvre. The works, individually and when collated seamlessly into the exhibition hosted by the Stevenson Gallery in 2015 and published into a book bearing the exhibition’s name, called me towards the notion of the patriarchal gaze, making me question what it means to see and to be seen. This series of self-portraits that present Muholi in different guise, taken over a period of a year, a different portrait each day, but always with the same intentional yet indifferent stare, brings the politics of auto-expression home.
Somnyama Ngonyama is a work that references black and white portraiture, a medium that has been seminal in creating and articulating black subjectivity.
In dark hues -a black that is black, a strong and melancholy grey, an endearing white- Muholi makes stark the precarity of black subjectivity in a way very much reminiscent of Glen Ligon’s sentiment “I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a white background”.
In a world where gender expressions that fall outside of white -cis masculinity are consigned to the periphery, the relegation zone, Somnyama Ngonyama articulates a personhood that is never fixed, that under a patriarchal gaze is constantly moving between invisibility and hypervisibility.
It is a brilliant example of the point Aria Dean makes when she says “we are the constant
voyeuristic subject and object, both surveilled and surveyor”.
In a world where white heteronormativity is still very much the standard, where beauty and physical desirability are the modus operandi and marginalised individuals are being both excluded and co-opted into the beauty industry in various ways, Zanele Muholi’s project becomes ever more poignant. It reinforces the importance of self-stylisation and self-affirmation.
In this series of portraits, the resonance of the work is constructed in a two-fold process. Muholi centres herself as the object of the patriarchal gaze, whose hegemony she then counters through her insistence on starring back at the camera lens. Meanwhile she has fashioned herself in both a literal and metaphoric manner. It is these devices that allow her to re-create hers as a subject position that is capable of contesting the patriarchal gaze.
In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag dictates that when interacting with a works of art “the goal should be to show how it is what is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means”. But the potency and symbolic breadth of Muholi’s work lies in its call to all three. How it is what it is – a subversive act that is as decisive as it is bold. That it is what it is – necessary in its call to affirm blackness and lastly what it means – that individuals who have been marginalised, have the potential, through acts of self-affirmation to destabilise the status quo.
About the author
I am an aspiring curator currently working as part of the Banele Khoza’ curatorial team at the BKHZ Studio. I am a writer who has delivered conference papers titled It Is Your Story, Just Not Your Story to Tell- Prioritising Third Person Narratives, presented at the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation and Where does it still hurt?
Mapping the Cartographies of Pain, presented at the 2018 Afems Conference.