Why photographer Zanele Muholi inflicts pain on herself

The South African activist and artist utilises her body as a tool for creating powerful, painful self-portraiture – here she talks us through her process

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Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

In a world of media-trained pursed lips, Zanele Muholi is a refreshing riposte to press release jargon. “There is a clear intent in this project,” the South-African-based visual activist says, placing noted emphasis on the words ‘clear’ and ‘intent’, as she speaks to me from World Pride Summit Madrid, on her ongoing self-portrait series, Somnyama Ngonyama. “It’s all about representation.” Muholi continues with the kind of direction that never falters in the face of ambiguity: “I’m confronting the politics of race and representation in South Africa and beyond the South African borders in the most natural way I can – by presenting my own Black body.”

Muholi’s work (part admonition, part treatise) offers up an incisive commentary on the brutal, often malignant endemic racism in South Africa and a valuable account of the Black woman's experience as part of this: “Black bodies are still sidelined in different spaces and various ways. Somnyama Ngonyama will react to that.” These words find their cold reality in those of Black Lives Matter activist Cherno Biko, who recently told Fox News Channel that “every 28 hours a Black person is killed in America.” Muholi recognises this racial marginalisation, which is still felt on a widespread scale: “I’ve had enough of feeling like, ‘this shouldn’t be happening, again’. We can’t ignore this, we need to find different ways to articulate this pain.”

When Muholi started taking pictures of herself – first in her home, then in the hotel rooms she stayed in between travels – she found herself reactively responding to these societal-induced “pains”. “I chose to photograph my own body, because I wouldn’t want another human being able to feel it.” The exhibition, which is set to open at Autograph ABP next week, showcases femininity, and – of course – an unapologetic Blackness, all arriving at a time that has never felt riper. Below, she talks us through her process.

“I’ve had enough of feeling like, ‘this shouldn’t be happening, again’. We can’t ignore this, we need to find different ways to articulate this pain” – Zanele Muholi

This is, in your words, your "most painful" project to date – can you expand on why that is?

Zanele Muholi: In comparison to past projects this one was especially painful. I didn’t want to expose another body to my own pain, even those people who might share the same experiences. Sometimes it wasn’t even physical pain, it was emotional and stress-induced.

Every image is a reaction to something that has frustrated me, you know all of those annoying, irritating cases we are confronted with by the media every day, or all those cases that go undocumented? One major prompt, is the dire lack of Black faces in the media. It has taken a long time to have Black faces in the media, so long that now it feels negotiable, like this person can now “qualify” to be on the cover of the media. It’s painful because all of this has happened before; grandmothers, mothers, people we all know have been subjected to this racial objectification. I often find myself thinking “this can’t be” and the images are a manifestation of that feeling that it is still very real. We now need to find different ways to articulate this pain. This is my take.

For those who can’t make it, tell us about the show in your own words.

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama is about self-representation. It’s me looking at particular political issues that still affect us as human beings and I’m drawing on very real historical events in South Africa, and beyond South African borders. I used my own body to speak on issues of race for instance and focussed mainly on the importance of Blackness. What does it mean to be Black today? I explored that question through and through.

Somnyama Ngonyama is an ongoing series and speaks of ongoing racial issues, yet your photographic approach was a relatively reactive one, right?

Zanele Muholi: Yes, I found myself responding to moments of racial discrimination in South Africa – all of which I have collated into a racial timeline. I was also thinking about some of the experiences I have experienced as a human being, experiences that have come into being because of my skin tone. For example, racial profiling when crossing the border and travelling from country to country. Black people are asked questions that wouldn’t be asked of a different race, which is mostly white. What are you doing here? When are you going back? Between travelling I would go back to my hotel room and produce an image in response to historical, current or personal experiences. It’s my way of marking my presence in that space.

“I’m confronting the politics of race and representation in South Africa and beyond the South African borders in the most natural way I can – by presenting my own Black body” – Zanele Muholi

We see everyday objects transformed into historically loaded props, can you talk us through your intention?

Zanele Muholi: I’m responding to some very specific events and using materials and my body to do that. Let me tell you about one of the images. In one of them, I wear a safety hat which to me is symbolic of those the men at the centre of the Marikana Massacre in 2012 wore. For those who don’t know, the Marikana Massacre saw 112 men shot down, killing 34 as they walked out on strike at a platinum minefield in South Africa. I’m speaking about minimum wage, displacement, but most importantly the unexpected deaths of so many.

There is another image, where I am using cable ties around my body. When you look at cable ties you think functionality, they are often used to lock suitcases, protect possessions and to keep people away. For me here, they become a sign of social brutality, imprisonment, and exploitation. So basically, it says something about how people use common materials in different ways and moving beyond the expected, the stereotyped and the prescribed.

Who is the Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness”) talking to? 

Zanele Muholi: It depends on who is listening, who the viewer is and what knowledge they have. Anyone who is politically-minded and anti-racist will understand my approach. What I am doing though, is drawing attention to groups of people who lose their lives unexpectedly and unnecessarily because of lack of precaution. The Marikana Massacre happened because somebody made a mistake, the same can be said for recent events in London and the Grenfell Tower victims. It’s a feeling that extends to so many cases. Take LGBTI bodies for example, they as a collective are forever violated in South Africa – again this is human beings losing their lives because of ignorance or because someone refuses to understand.

There is no denying that diverse representation has been – and continues to be – unbalanced. In the show’s release, you talk about how you use this project as an opportunity to ‘reclaim your Blackness’. I’d love to hear you expand on that?

Zanele Muholi: I’m amplifying the Black body and face, but I am not mimicking anything. This is about a human being responding to particular events using artistic expression to speak on those particular issues.

Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness will run from 14 July – 28 October 2017 at Autograph ABP, London

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