AiW Guest: Bulelwa Mbele
Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness is the latest release by the South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi. Previously breaking ground with solo exhibitions including Only Half the Picture (2006, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town), Being (2007, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town) and Faces and Phases (2009, Brodie/Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg), Muholi has established a profoundly important visual archive of the LGBTQIA community in South Africa. Such deep-hitting visual activism is continued in Somnyama Ngonyama. However, this publication — the outcome of a photographic series containing roughly 100 images — sees a slight shift in Muholi’s lens. Moving away from the social challenges facing the LGBTQIA community, Somnyama Ngonyama seems to re-articulate the colonial photographic archive and explores how race intersects with a broader range of complexities including gender, sexuality, grief, and postcoloniality.
The book is primarily an interview with Renee Mussai juxtaposed alongside a number of photographic self-portraits in which Muholi integrates banal household objects like blankets and chopsticks as props. Also included are analytical interventions from various cultural scholars, curators, authors, and poets. These analyses are diverse. They all give different perspectives on the power that the images hold. For example, the author Milisuthando Bongela writes about interactions she had with her white peers during her schooling years. She starts with comments that most black children heard in their “multiracial” schools, right after the advent of democracy in South Africa. These comments were made to humiliate and instill inferiority. They include, “does the water turn brown when you wash” and “you can come to my house, but I cannot come to yours”. Bongela links the comments to Muholi’s work and uses them to show how blackness has shifted from being an indicator of “inferiority”, “humiliation”, and “the margins” into something much more central. Muholi, for one, is fiercely unapologetic.
Tamar Garb’s writing is slightly more delicate than that of Bongela. For her part, Garb explores two photographs — Bester I (p. 4) and Bester V (p. 16) — which commemorate Muholi’s late mother. The text describes Bester’s role as a domestic worker and the dynamics of her employment. Garb starts by discussing the “separation” that the apartheid system was built on but without mentioning the separation of races. Rather she talks of family and Muholi’s separation from her mother. Garb describes how the apartheid system denied Muholi her mother’s nurture who instead was made to give it to the children of her white employers. She recalls a moment in Muholi’s 2010 film Difficult Love, where Muholi becomes vulnerable and confides in her mother’s previous employer: “I wish I was more celebrated by my mother . . . I still need her in my life . . . I am breaking”. Garb allows a gentler and more fragile Muholi to surface, a version of Muholi that the public may not be familiar with. Indeed, the various texts in Somnyama Ngonyama offer writers from diverse backgrounds (mostly black womxn) an opportunity to write about both their experiences and Muholi’s. The result is an alternate narrative, one that contests history.
The images themselves interrogate a multitude of issues ranging from the 2012 Marikana Massacre in Thulani II (p. 119) through to the xenophobic attacks that dogged South African townships during 2015, evoked in the image Ziphelele (p. 24). But, though different themes and events are addressed, a common thread remains in the exaggerated tone of Muholi’s skin in each self-portrait. It is as if Muholi is applying black face paint the way that white Hollywood stars did during the 1930s. Done in post-production, this skin darkening shows her determination to highlight the significant role race plays in the lives of black people around the world today. During the interview with Mussai, Muholi explains the racist treatment she often encounters at the airports and hotels of foreign countries. By communicating her experiences and making her ‘blackness’ hyper-visible, Somnyama Ngonyama conveys the oppressive and stifling nature of racism.
Her darkened face also allows Muholi to challenge society’s admiration of white heteronormative beauty. Black women who are deemed ‘beautiful’ in the black community are usually those that have fair skin, long straight hair and Caucasian facial features. The latter suggesting that blackness is only beautiful when it has been diluted. Dark skinned black women are often ignored, not represented in mainstream media. This symbolic violence is addressed in Muholi’s blackened face: the simple act places dark skin at the center and refutes its subordinate position. This re-articulation of beauty is expanded on in the poem, Blackness (page 108) by Napo “Popo” Masheane. Here Masheane praises the “thick hips” and “bronze lips” that have been used to characterize black womxn.
This acknowledgment of black beauty is reiterated in the artwork Julile I (p. 142). Muholi lies naked on a rug, her body resting comfortably around several plastic bags filled with air. Her breasts and genitalia are covered by the plastic bags and seem to protect her from the male gaze. Muholi’s dreadlocks are loose, her body an intense black, and her gaze confrontational. The composition of this photograph reminds the reader of Titian’s 1534 painting Venus of Urbino, which is popularly referred to as the Reclining Venus and depicts the beautiful goddess of love. By echoing Titian’s Venus in her own pose, Muholi assumes the role of a “goddess of love”. Nor should we forget the ironic humour this synergy creates. Muholi identifies herself as homosexual in contrast to Venus’ traditional arousing of white heterosexual desire. Thus Muholi frames the homosexual, black womxn’s body as an object of desire and sees it achieve a position previously denied. The photograph enshrines into the art history canon, the idea that dark-skinned black womxn can be beautiful.
The visual and the literature in the book come together and create a sense of ‘counter visuality’. In the case of Somnyama Ngonyama, the images offer an alternative to historical visual imagery and allow Muholi to imagine different way of seeing black womxn. She represents them as beautiful, strong, resilient, and self-sufficient. But this recasting is not done in neutral or away from other social ills. Bhekisisa (p. 75) places Muholi’s body in the background between rocks on a seashore. At first glance, it looks like her body is one of the large rocks but when you look at the photograph closely you can see her stiff body lying horizontally. Her arms are on her sides, she lies still as if incapable of movement. The image evokes the idea of survival, as if Muholi was lost at sea and her body has been washed up on the shore. I instantly associated the image to the black bodies that often wash up on European shores: African immigrants risking their lives in hope of a better future. There is a violence in the frame, Muholi’s body looks dismembered, the rocks have violently ‘cut up’ her body. Yet she is still alive, she has survived. Moreover, the image talks to the violence that victims of hate crime experience, particularly those that have been exposed to corrective rape. How the crime metaphorically dismembersthe victim. The stiffness in Muholi’s body in this image is jarring, it suggests that she cannot help herself, she cannot get herself out of the situation she is in. The condition of her body refers to imprisonment, suggesting that victims of hate crimes become imprisoned in their own bodies.
Somnyama Ngonyama successfully wrestles a dynamism from such horrors. Muholi’s photographs are awash with a variety of interpretative possibilities that talk to the struggles black people face. The book explores what it means to be a black womxn living in a world that has previously attempted to erase your existence.
Bulelwa Mbele is a Junior Lecturer in Art History at the University of South Africa. She is also pursuing her Master’s degree in History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research is largely based on sexual violence and the manner it intersects with visual culture.
In 2010 she graduated with a BA (Fine Arts) from the University of the Witwatersrand. In 2011 she interned at Gallery Momo and has since become a project assistant at the nonprofit organization, Fordsburg Artists’ Studios.