by Welcome Lishivha
The KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA) displayed artworks made from various mediums (ranging from charcoal, woodcut carving, beaded string, oil and acrylic on canvas and paper, pastel on paper, and others) interpreting Professor Sir Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail The Dark Lioness, an ongoing photographic project that recently received the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation best photography book award at an event hosted at the Royal Society of Arts in the UK.
Zanele Muholi with 2019 Best Photography Book chair of judges, Liz Jobey (left) and Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Chairman, Sir Brian Pomeroy © Lerato Dumse
In Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi offers audacious photographs of themselves that are depicted in a vulnerable light yet also foreground their blackness in a manner that’s glaring and powerful, embodying the book title: Hail The Great Lioness. Muholi’s work in this book centres on race, gender, sexuality and representation. The work is a deliberate attempt to transgress dominant ideas of access, exclusion and representation. The work tackles these difficult subject matters with a ferocity that’ll haunt you long after you’ve left the gallery.
The Ikhono LaseNatali exhibition, which officially opened on 17 May 2019, features multiple interpretations of Muholi’s body of work from Somnyama Ngonyama. Ikhono Lasenatali translates into ‘talent in natal’, referring to the 25 talented young artist from KwaZulu-Natal. Muholi further explains that Ikhono is also a word play on iconography and that the ‘natal’ refers to a kind of rebirth of the arts into the kind that centres black people as participants and consumers. “This is about presence and visibility in spaces like museums and galleries where black people were previously sidelined or excluded. We are producing content that will live beyond us,” adds Muholi.
Somnyama Ngonyama interpretation of Vile, Gothenburg (2015) done by Khulekani Mkhize
The exhibition features some of KwaZulu-Natal’s finest artists who have taken very seriously the task of reinterpreting Somnyama Ngonyama in ways that speak to their lived experiences as artists who are established in their own right. Khulekani Mkhize who interpreted Muholi’s Vile, Gothenburg (2015) using charcoal says upon getting the brief, he became so involved in the cathartic act of producing the art piece that it didn’t matter whether or not the piece would be accepted. “The white tapes [that seem to decorate a black regal attire which also seems to act as protective gear] represent my mother’s scars. I started seeing those stripes as my mother wearing her scars. As someone who grew up seeing what my mother went through, this art became a way for me to tell that story,” says Mkhize. He notes that since working on the piece, he has seen the significant influence of this piece and the process of making it in the other work he’s worked on post the piece he produced for the exhibition.
Muholi, who was constantly teased for being dark skinned while growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, says for the longest time they grew up believing they that were ugly. They now recognise the act of declaring oneself as beautiful outside dominant ideas of beauty as being radical and one does not need to go further than their work to see this. Fittingly, they started off their opening remarks at the exhibition opening with the song Zizojika izinto, thula mtanam’ (things will change, cry not my child) and went on to emphasize that this is just the beginning. There will be more projects, including a project for June 16, a project for human rights, a project for tourism and these projects will be followed by books, says Muholi.
Prof. Muholi speaking during the opening of Ikhono LaseNatali © Lerato Dumse
There’s also an upcoming children’s colouring book by Thembi Mthembu that’ll also come out of the exhibition. “What you see here [at KZNSA] is a book that was produced by us and for us and for our children and our children’s children. Our children will play with these books and colour in ways that they know how to. We want to have books with artists and people that we recognise and can say their names,” said Muholi at the opening exhibition on the 25th of May 2019. The exhibition is also a celebration of the 25 years of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa.
“Artists also have a voice and ought to engage in the conversations regarding the state of the country,” notes co-curator Thobeka Bhengu on the commission as being part of celebrating the 25 years of democratic South Africa. The 25 artists were given the chance to interpret Muholi’s work which tackles the political questions of the day around gender, race, beauty and representation. Most of the artist chosen are men whom Muholi had intentions of documenting for the One Hundred Men series. Most of them are also part of the Amasosha Art Movement, a collective of upcoming Durban based artists aimed at creating solidarity among artists.
Professor Sir Zanele Muholi has received much international acclaim for their work dating back to Faces and Phases, which featured a photographic archive of South Africa’s LBTIQ community. Muholi believes in using their renown and visibility to empower others. And so Ikhono LaseNatali comes out of Muholi’s need to give back and help upcoming artists in KwaZulu Natal, where they’re from. This exhibition also forms part of Muholi’s vast work of giving back and helping raise the voices of other artists on the continent.
Welcome Lishivha posing next to Somnyama Ngonyama interpretations done by (left) Morgan Mahape and Andile Maphumulo (right) © Matthew Jevan
They started a mobile Photo XP workshop dedicated to teaching children as young as primary school learners, in remote areas, some photography skills. In 2009 they also founded Inkanyiso Media, a platform dedicated to archiving and re-writing narratives of the black LGBTIQ community in Africa. For the award-winning artist, collaborating with various artist is key to their practices and Ikhono Lasenataliis testament to this. “Don’t die with ideas, let’s share ideas” insists Muholi at the walkabout of the exhibition on 18 May 2019.
Muholi goes by the pronoun ‘they’ because when you refer to them, you’re not only referring to them as an individual, you are also addressing their late parents and others of their ancestors who have come before them and paved the way for them to exist as they do today. ‘They’ also allows them to transgress the gender binaries and to form an identity outside those binaries. Their strong sense of community and belief in sharing opportunities, is the reason they always travel with one, two or more people (often participants in their photography) whenever they’re invited to talk or exhibit their work around the world. In their rise and stardom, they are really never alone.