Named after its late founder, surgeon and artist Dr. Tom Rees, the Rees Visionary Award is given to artists who are creating exceptional work that educates, inspires, and emboldens the viewer through these challenging times. Muholi’s work, which addresses issues of human rights, especially that of the LGBTQI+ community, is vital and powerful. Zanele Muholi is a living icon of activism and social justice. Through evocative black and white photography and documentary films, they provide a politically and culturally charged critique of our society in relation to the Black body and more specifically, the bodies of LGBTQI+ people of color, especially in South Africa where individuals are being murdered for their identity and sexuality.
“The portraits are at once a visual statement and an archive,” Muholi has said, “marking, mapping, and preserving an often invisible community for posterity.” Muholi’s sensitive portraits challenge the stigma surrounding gays and lesbians in South Africa, debunk the common rhetoric that homosexuality is un-African, and address the preponderance of hate crimes against homosexuals in their native country. Among other subjects, Muholi has captured the survivors of “corrective rape”.
With “Somnyama Ngonyama”, which is isiZulu for Hail the Dark Lioness, Muholi turns the camera on themselves, illustrating their place and perspective on the documentation of their own existence. Curated by Renee Mussai of Autograph London, this series of self portraits have inspired and engaged an intersectional audience. In the internationally acclaimed exhibition featuring more than 70 photographs, Muholi uses their body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation in the visual archive. Muholi’s psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their directness as they explore different archetypes, personal and collective histories, contemporary politics, and global events.
Somnyama Ngonyama employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to critically rearticulate contemporary identity politics. By increasing the contrast in the dark complexion of their skin, Muholi interrogates complex representations of beauty, pride, and desire. Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges the viewer’s perceptions while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms. When the exhibition debuted at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, it produced myriad programming and community outreach including poetry commissions and dance performances using Muholi’s work as inspirational guidance and gestalt. Visitors were visibly moved by the works hung on black, grey, and white walls – seeing themselves and their ancestors in the contemporary imagery of historical oppressions and future liberation.