Visual activist launches new book in Cape Town

by: Simangele Mzizi

Photos by: Lerato Dumse

On 1 December 2018, visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi, launched the long-awaited book Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Zeitz Mocaa Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town.

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A departure from her renowned black and white portraits, Faces and Phases amongst various LGBTI photo projects including Brave Beauties, Being Series, Beulah, which sees Muholi commemorating and celebrating black lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals and gender-nonconforming individuals. In Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates to Hail the Dark Lioness, Muholi turns the lens on herself. She is boldly reclaiming blackness and offers a radical statement of identity and resistance.

In a conversation (also contained in the book) with curator, Renée Mussai, Muholi explains that Somnyama Ngonyama is not only about beautiful photographs; it’s also about bringing forward 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 and because of all that you are.”

ee 0404 Kwanele _ Parktown _ 2016 1                                       Kwanele _ Parktown _ 2016 © Zanele Muholi

For example, one of the portraits contained in the book is called Kwanele – meaning “it is enough” in isiZulu. The image responds to Muholi’s experience of travelling through immigration at different airports where she is often racially profiled. In the image, she is draped in plastic. The activist explains during the conversation with Mussai that the plastic around her face is the same material that covers her suitcase during her travels: “The image speaks about the need for protection, as well as the sense of feeling exposed, stripped of dignity, and being continually scrutinised when passing through border control. It speaks to the painful inconvenience of being delayed by these experiences, humiliated, and unnecessarily exposed, as though you have committed a crime.”

The book is filled with other striking images in which Muholi confronts the politics of race and offers commentary on specific events in South Africa’s political history. In addition to the series of Muholi’s self-portraits, the book includes written contributions by 24 curators, poets, and authors who draw out the many layers of meaning and possible readings for the collection of images.

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Attendees at the event were treated to various performances including from one of the contributors of the book, Christie van Zyl. Commenting on the launch, van Zyl, who has worked with Muholi for several years said: “Muholi’s work is an affirmation to never allow circumstances to deter you from doing whatever you say you are here to do in the world. Even though all she was exposed to was being hated for her dark skin, today she is here to tell us that she is everything and we are everything along with her.”

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Speaking at the end of the book launch, Muholi reiterated that her practice as a visual activist looks at black resistance, existence as well as insistence. She used the opportunity to encourage LGBTQIA youths to reclaim spaces that they have been previously denied, to re-think what history is all about, to reclaim it for themselves and to strive to empower themselves. And most importantly, to use artistic tools such as cameras and writing as weapons to fight back. A strong advocate for education, Muholi also revealed that in 2019 there is an educational programme launch for LGBTQIA youths through proceeds from her work.

In another exciting development, Muholi mentioned that her long-time friend, supporter and activist, founder of Free Gender Funeka Soldaat, will be launching her book at Zeitz Mocaa: “Funeka has been an activist for decades through her organisation which fights gender violence in townships in Cape Town and her upcoming book is a wonderful and necessary contribution towards the country’s LGBTQIA community and I urge everyone to support this all-important work.”

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Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness has won Aperture Book Publisher of the Year at the 2018 Lucie Awards. The book can be purchased online here:

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