09 August 2018

Self-Portraiture as Activism

09 August 2018 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Zanele Muholi’s latest photobook is a raging manifesto of resistance; a powerful attempt to rid photography of a colonial gaze.

© Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

Aperture has just released the compilation of self-portraits that South-African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi shot over the past six years. An ode to self-acceptance and to tolerance, her 90 variations of herself are accompanied with texts, ranging from essays to poetry, by an array of voices rising from different continents and experiences.

Somnyama Ngonyama (i.e., Hail the Dark Lioness, in Zulu, Muholi’s mother tongue) is as challenging as its title suggests. As a contributor, Tamar Garb writes that Muholi’s “eyes look out fixedly, as if to defy those historical protocols of posing that required subservience to type, their cataloguing of the texture of hair, the shape of a nose, the sheen of skin, the character of lips, the better to construct taxonomies and lists.”

© Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

A stand against the tyranny of classification, Muholi’s self-portraits are a passionate outcry against the white establishment – the abnormally high numbers of murdered black people being shut down, the as abnormally high number of black people incarcerated, of abandoned migrants, the taste for exoticism and the prejudicial representation of blackness.

But it’s also a dire criticism of South Africa – a democracy that in 2012 orchestrated the killing of 34 miners asking for better wages; that allows servitude and the trading of women for money; and whose newspapers are covered with homophobic news. By telling multiple stories of oppression and resistance, and in doing so, incarnating what it means to be black in the world today, Muholi’s series “validates our existence in all forms and shades, and asserts our status as significant beings”, contributor Jackie Mondi argues – Mondi, whose call for the provision of free HIV/AIDS treatment was quoted in the 2009 Republic of South Africa Budget Speech.

© Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

The multiplicity of references and voices – be it Muholi’s various embodiments or the alternance between her photographs and the texts - amplifies her shout. It becomes a collective, almost mystical voice that emanates from the oppressed who came before her and will come after.

“There is a black warrior behind every dark veil
A warrior powerful even though they think she is frail
Can you smell the hot lava she produces?
She is a black woman, mad at the many times
She has been told she is not enough
Not worthy enough
She has found the strength to roar
Hear her roar loud until the chains break
Restless yet she rests peacefully in the stereotypical role she plays”, South African poet, Mapula Lehong, writes, to give the measure of Muholi’s communicative determination.


Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness by Zanele Muholi

Published by Aperture Foundation // Photographs by Zanele Muholi

Interview and essay contribution by Renée Mussai // Other contributions by Unoma Azuah, Cheryl Clarke, Fariba Derakhshani, Sophie Hackett, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Mapula Lehong, Sindiwe Magona, Napo Masheane, Hlonipha Mokoena, Jackie Mondi, Deborah Willis, and Christie van Zyl, among others

Hardcover // 224 page, 100 tritone images // 26.5 x 35.5 cm // $75



Zanele Muholi (born in Umlazi, South Africa, 1972) is a visual activist and photographer, co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and founder of Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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