The global concerns of southern African photography

AiW Guest: Oyedepo Olukotun 

It is interesting to observe that a number of the 2017 summer exhibitions in London, UK, have coalesced around the storyline of Blackness. On the forefront with this storyline is Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. However moving slightly away from the blockbuster setting of the Tate, your curiosity would be rewarded with gems like Usakos – Photographs Beyond Ruins: The Old Location Albums, 1920s to 1960s and Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama. Both exhibitions add, to the aforementioned storyline, intriguing themes of their own. They are both photography exhibitions originating from southern Africa. And yet while being specifically about southern African photography, both exhibitions simultaneously echo themes and concerns that would readily resonate with any politically-aware or -affected international audience.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi at the Q&A inaugurating her exhibition at Autograph ABP, London. Photo by Oyedepo Olukotun.

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) picks up the narrative of black protest and the politics of blackness from Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation, and more interestingly, the issue of sexuality from Queer British Art 1861–1967. Zanele Muholi neatly addresses the issues of racial equality, sexuality and many other social challenges simultaneously in one exhibition, compared to the attempts of two different exhibitions in two London Tate venues. Zanele Muholi is a South African “visual activist”, who has long earned this right of a solo exhibition on the international stage. Her on-going project focused on queer protest featured in Documenta 13 (2012), making Muholi an artist with globally reputable provenance. This also casts her as a trailblazing African artist as the 2017 instalment, Documenta 14, currently features a prominent list of African artists. Documenta is a strictly 100-day internationally prestigious art exhibition that happens once every five years in the German city of Kassel. It is a non-selling exhibition that was first held in 1955. The artist Joseph Beuys was closely associated with Documenta.

Zanele Muholi is a collection of 60 black and white photographic self-portraits of Muholi in various guises. These are 60 images from an on-going project aimed at producing 365 self-portraits illustrating what it is to be varyingly black, female and queer. Muholi is inspired by the simple idea that individuals, in the face of all sorts of politics or subversions, are black, female and/or queer “people 365 days a year” and her ambition is to give an authentic voice to these statuses.  Muholi’s different guises of the politicised self using the medium of photography is in the format made famous by the American photographer/artist Cindy Sherman, whose photographic raison d’etre was the politics of womanhood. Muholi stretches the narrative of womanhood to include blackness and queer politics using the same format of a series of staged self-portraits favoured by Sherman.

Usakos – Photographs Beyond Ruins: The Old Location Albums, 1920s to 1960s aligns with Zanele Muholi on the narrative of identity politics and southern Africa with an exhibition of photographs from Usakos, a neighbourhood in what is today Namibia. The photographs of the exhibition are remnants from when Namibia was a colony of South Africa. That these photographs can be exhibited today is thanks to the diligent custodianship of four Namibian women whose personal stories are part of the narrative of the display. The exhibition tells the story of segregation and displacement, issues that might resonate with Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation. The Usakos exhibition honours the four custodians’ efforts of socio-political resistance. These women’s resistance ensured that their community’s history and heritage was preserved in the face of various cultural and social traumas between the 1920s and 1960s.  Through their personal devotion the four women developed a self-motivated archival practice that earned them the admiration of Western professional archivists and curators.


Whether contemporaneous or historical, both exhibitions have a uniquely southern African political sense about them. The historical displacement and segregation that Usakos speaks of was not necessarily duplicated across the length and breadth of colonised Africa. Likewise, the multi-faced cultural and political atmosphere that makes Zanele Muholi’s queer protest both politically possible and yet physically dangerous has not spread to the rest of the African side of the Atlantic. In fact in the rest of the continent such protest has just the one dimension to it: that of danger.Put side-by-side, Zanele Muholi and Usakos illustrate the story of how a people express and preserve the political self within a harsh political environment. Furthermore, the temporal parallels the two exhibitions display complement each other. While Zanele Muholi presents a global voice of protest that would be readily recognised by its audience in these politically charged times, Usakos presents a window into an alien time and place with a historical story that is emphasised by the curators’ focus on the archive and archival practice.  While the neighbourhood of Usakos might be geographically remote from the London audience of the Usakos exhibition, the notion of preserving the old while making way for the new remains a international concern. Usakos presents a historical narrative while Zanele Muholi’s story is contemporary.

In contrast to the rest of the continent, South Africa’s legislation protects Muholi’s status and right to protest; however the indigenous cultures of the relatively young democracy are yet to catch up with its legislation. The South Africa pictured here might seem a shade different from the rest of Africa, however this need to get in step with international standards on issues of individual status and the right to protest remains a crucial one for the whole of the continent, while also being one prism through which to view Africa. As far as other international spheres go, on the global stage of London’s summer exhibition scene both Usakos and Zanele Muholi display snippets of Africa that, while being unique, reveal the continent’s ability to present common stories, intercontinental understandings about society and the aptitude for historical and contemporary self-reflection.


Usakos – Photographs Beyond Ruins is on display until 23 September 2017 at SOAS Brunei Gallery and Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama is on at Autograph ABP until 28 October 2017.


AiWProfilePic170912Depo Olukotun (London) is a PhD student of photography history and theory at De Montfort University Leicester. His research looks at the photographic practice and commercial activity of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria from the 1950s onwards. He has a Masters in the History of Art from Birkbeck, University of London.

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1 reply


  1. Revue de presse #53 – Septembre 2017 – FOTOTA – Perspectives africaines en photographie

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