The Cooper Gallery
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Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness
Curated by Renée Mussai
An Autograph Traveling Exhibition
In more than 80 self-portraits, celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972), uses their body as a canvas to confront the deeply personal politics of race and representation in the visual archive. In Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates from isiZulu to ‘Hail The Dark Lioness’, Muholi playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. Each black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social (in)justice, human rights, and contested representations of the Black body.
Taken in cities across Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa, Muholi's socially engaged, radical brand of self-portraiture transforms found objects and quotidian materials into dramatic and historically loaded props, merging the political with the personal, aesthetics with history - often commenting on specific events in South Africa’s past, as well as urgent global concerns pertinent to our present times: scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude while alluding to sexual politics, cultural violence, and the often suffocating prisms of gendered identities. Rubber tires, cable ties, or electrical cords invoke forms of social brutality and exploitation; sheets of plastic and polythene draw attention to environmental issues and global waste, while accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticized representations of African cultures.
Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin becomes the focal point of profound visual interrogations into matters of beauty, pride, desire, self-care and the many interlinked phobias, and isms navigated daily such as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism.