Wearing a short-sleeved denim button-down shirt with jeans and a fedora sitting atop their locks, Muholi pointed at each image and relayed the experiences that led to each one.
“Somnyama” means darkness and “Ngonyama” means lioness, which is Muholi’s mother’s clan name in Zulu. South Africa has 11 official languages, of which Zulu is one, and all of the image titles are written in their native tongue. The photographs were taken from Amsterdam to Tokyo, and reflect an experience or sentiment Muholi had in that place. One image was taken while they visited Atlanta for the High Museum’s “Making Africa” exhibition last year. It features a chain around Muholi’s neck and spools of rope in their hair. They saw the objects being used as Halloween decorations in the home of an acquaintance, but they reminded them of slavery, and caused them to consider how objects hold different meanings for different people.
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“I wonder if people look at these chains the same way I look at them,” said Muholi. “Do they represent something good, something beautiful or for entertainment, or will they trigger some flashbacks for those who are generations of those who survived or succumbed to slavery? All of those things have to do with being confined, or something that was used for work or other purposes. Once you see a lock, you see it differently.”
Muholi took a different photo almost every day for a year, and the photos included in the exhibition were selected from that larger body of work. Exhibition curator Renee Mussai, head of archive at Autograph, selected photos where “Muholi’s gaze is oppositional, scrutinizing, challenging and confrontational.” Autograph is a nonprofit UK organization that acquires historic and contemporary images, as well as commissions new photographic works, that explore issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice.
“Curatorially, I wanted to create a space where one cannot escape this gaze: a relentless dialogue of looking, and seeing, in the same way that their experiences of blackness and being, of traveling in the world in their black body, continuously in transition, facing racisms and phobias, is relentless,” said Mussai.
Indeed, Muholi’s gaze does seem to follow viewers around the gallery, compelling them to deal with whatever feelings the images evoke.
Muholi’s skin appears dark and luminescent in the images, qualities achieved in the editing process after the photos are taken, not with makeup or paint. They use toothpaste on their lips to create a stark contrast between the skin and mouth. In most of the images, the artist wears crowns and elaborate neck pieces they fashioned out of Brillo pads, safety pins, washing machine hoses and other domestic objects, turning items that have been used to keep black women small into symbols of honor. Looking at an image titled “Bester I, Mayotte,” which Muholi said reminds them of their mother, they explain how black women’s hair is often subject to scrutiny and how adorning that hair with unexpected objects turns bondage into freedom.
“Bester I, Mayotte,” 2015. Zanele Muholi. Contributed by Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.
“Each and everything around my hair has its own politic,” said Muholi. “It can either be the [wooden clothespins] around my hair, which is a different kind of traditional crown, but it speaks of women and work. So there [in “Bester I, Mayotte”], my mom worked as a domestic worker for more than 42 years and that represents her in a way. I wanted to produce an image that represented her as a young, beautiful person.”
By using these objects out of their usual context and projecting black bodies proudly occupying space, Muholi hopes to inspire others to use visuals to tell their stories.
“My wish is to see many other knowledge producers taking this path to represent themselves, to project themselves,” said Muholi. “I know sometimes it’s unnerving and some people might think of it otherwise. But, we need to see many of us in different spaces. We shouldn’t wait for people to do us because it’s our time.”
"Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness." Through Dec. 3. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday. $3 suggested donation. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 440 Westview Drive SW, Atlanta. 404-270-5607, museum.spelman.edu. A poetry performance and panel discussion about issues facing black LGBTQI women hosted by poet Lyrispect will be held 2 p.m. Oct. 13.