The way they look

Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness – Zanele Muholi


First I was drawn to the cover of this book – a powerful and hopeful portrait of a black woman. Immediately I was touched and wanted to learn more about the work. After doing some research, I learned that this book is about self-portraits of  Zanele Muholi, a South African photographer, portraying different personas, using her body to confront the politics of race and representation, questioning the way the black body is shown and perceived.

These images were produced over 3 years, and she took a self-portrait every day to send a message that “we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” She calls herself a “Visual Activist” rather than a photographer or an artist as she believes that photography shouldn’t just be about fine art, but also in speaking for the unjust. Her three important facets of identity: woman, African, queer, brought her to not only use images to speak for them, but to discover within herself the different sides of her identity. She said, “all these images are me, they are different parts of me. I’m not mimicking black. it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me.”

Now this piece of work isn’t something you can just unravel like that, there are layers of meaning within each photo. Materials used in each photograph are symbolism or representations of something cultural or political or history of African. For example, an image of her with plastics wrapped all around her head. These plastics are used to wrapped around luggages to cross boarders, and often it’s because of their race that they get to be asked funny questions and get stopped at the customs. The feeling of this made her feels like trash, which is metaphored by the plastic that covers the suitcases used in the image.

It is important to study each photo carefully to decipher the message that Muholi wants to portray. Each element she adds to the image has a specific representation, even the way of her gaze, is it confrontational or is it a matter of questioning the audience?

I would love to get a hands-on to read this book. Her work not only taught me about the African culture and politics behind, but also about symbolism in art and semiotics of photography which I was not really aware of or familiar with. Nothing beats reading the images on paper and feeling and smelling the photographs.