Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits are so dark they glow. Called “Somnyama Ngonyama” (“Hail the Dark Lioness”), the series has been shown in ten cities across the world in the past year. Last autumn they stared out of digital billboards over Times Square in New York as part of the city’s Performa Biennial festival. They sold out in the previews at Muholi’s New York gallery and are about to be published as a book by Aperture. From a black, working-class family, Muholi is South Africa’s biggest international art star after William Kentridge and David Goldblatt, two white men a generation older.
The global art world first took note of Muholi when a series of portraits of lesbians from the artist’s own community were exhibited in 2012 at Documenta, the quinquennial German show that has launched many artists. These continue to be updated, and were recently exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Now, with an acute sense of the way identity politics is expressed in both art and politics, Muholi has turned the camera inwards, in an examination of “what it means to be black, 365 days a year”. The “Dark Lioness” portraits are alter egos, and many have Zulu names. Some were taken in Muholi’s sparse flat in Johannesburg. Others were made on the road, a travelogue of the nomadic artist in hotel rooms across the world.
Muholi’s mother, Bester, was a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa who had to leave her own children to care for a white family. In one sequence the artist celebrates her life by fashioning regal crowns out of the articles of workaday servitude: scouring pads and clothes pegs. In another portrait, after an incident of racial profiling at airport security, Muholi is adorned in jewellery made of plastic cable-ties which are normally used to restrain people. But in many of the portraits, the character seems almost suffocated by such adornments. Are those eyes fearsome or fearful? If this is a lioness, she often needs to lick her wounds.
Some of the images are regal, others achingly vulnerable. In all, the skintone is darkened, not with make-up – as minstrel performers might have used blackface – but digitally, in post-production, by upping the contrasts to the maximum. Photography is not kind to very dark skin: either you disappear against a dark background or lose your features against a light one. Muholi addresses this technical challenge by pushing the medium to its limits.
The images flirt dangerously with racist iconography. This offers sharp commentary on the way that beauty and status are so often associated in the mass media and among black people with lighter skin. “Muholi has chosen the darkest dark,” the South African historian Hlonipha Mokoena says, “and thus demands that we see the beauty in it, as well as the pain.” For Mokoena, this is a high-wire act: the blackface aesthetic “might lead to it being viewed only as irony or parody when in fact its message is deadly serious.”
Muholi tells me that this project was a way “to make something beautiful that is not usually perceived as such… To talk about the aesthetic of blackness and the presence of ‘black’ in spaces that were mainly white.” When we met in Johannesburg in April the artist wore androgynous black, with long dreads escaping from a township-style leather hat. Recently Muholi has begun using the pronoun “they” rather than “she” as a way, I would discover, of challenging the strictures of both gender and racial identity. In person, they are engaging and playful, and have an intense sense of mission. Muholi insists on being regarded as a “visual activist” rather than an artist, with “participants” rather than subjects. “I have a dream” is the frequent refrain: about forging a community bound by love and about empowering young people. At the core of it all is an assertion of self-definition, an aesthetic and political credo expressed in the portrait’s gaze. “Look at me,” the eyes challenge. “Accept me for who I am.”
Muholi was born in 1972 in the depths of apartheid, and raised by an extended family in Umlazi, a hardscrabble black township outside the port city of Durban. “Playing like boys” would earn a beating, but once Muholi came out as a lesbian – their older sister Ntombizane recalls in “Difficult Love”, the artist’s 2010 film, “mom accepted it, we couldn’t do anything. After that, even my brothers couldn’t kick her out of the house.”
Muholi came of age as South Africa did, voting for the first time at 21 in the 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela to power. Moving to Johannesburg, the artist became part of an assertive new generation of black lesbians carving out space under a constitution that guaranteed not only racial equality but protection on the grounds of sexual orientation too. Women who would once have masked their identities behind skirts and children now came out of the closet, gathering in township taverns or on the streets without men to protect them.
Photography seemed to offer Muholi a sense of purpose and community, and they began documenting this vibrant new scene. They signed up to the Market Photo Workshop, a Johannesburg school founded by the legendary photographer David Goldblatt. One Sunday morning, Muholi went into the suburbs to knock on Goldblatt’s door. “She told me that I was going to be her mentor,” Goldblatt recalls. Thus began a relationship that resulted in Goldblatt sponsoring Muholi’s master’s degree in Canada. Muholi calls him a “father figure”.
In 2002 Muholi co-founded a lesbian advocacy group and became consumed by the need to combat the backlash against the new visibility of lesbians in South Africa. As Ntombizane, Muholi’s sister, puts it: “Many people dislike lesbians, because they fear lesbians will take [their] girlfriends. Men don’t want anyone to be a man except themselves. That’s why they end up killing them.” Butch women in particular were subjected to the horrific practice – one that persists to this day – of “corrective rapes” and murders. “Faces and Phases”, the series of portraits of lesbians and transgender people that made Muholi’s name, began as a way to fight back.
Still, Muholi seemed to struggle for family acceptance – or maybe just understanding. In “Difficult Love” we see the artist weeping after Bester’s death in 2009: “I so wish I was more celebrated by mother than by other people.” Bester had never been to one of her daughter’s shows. “I don’t know what she would have thought of the work that I do [even though] she understood what I am. So I don’t know if to say ‘I’m hurt’ is the right word, but I’m breaking. I’m breaking.”
For two decades, Muholi has used the camera to construct a surrogate family. The artist seeks out participants, urging them to present their very best selves to the camera, in the portraiture tradition of yore. After this initiation ritual, they are part of the new family.
Muholi’s photographic prints sell for between $5,000 and $11,000. The artist has used some of the money to sponsor a sports team and to train videographers. Young acolytes go out to document black LGBT weddings, funerals and pageants – and Muholi events, of course. Members of the family are invited to launches, and are generally expected to be part of the buzz.
The effect is twofold: to enhance Muholi’s majesty (this is a court, a house, a pride) and to empower others. It also shows the art world the messy context out of which the works emerge. At some Muholi exhibitions, there is a wall devoted to hate crimes in South Africa and a memorial service involving members of the community – even if they have to be flown to Amsterdam or New York for the purpose. For Performa last year, Muholi brought with her 20 people to New York, including drag artists, contemporary dancers, a phalanx of documenters, the mother of a murdered lesbian and even a personal gynaecologist.
A drag artist who was on the tour, Odidiva, says that Muholi’s mission was “to show the world that we are here, we are queer, 365 days a year; that LGBT is not just something for Pride [parades]”. There is, indeed, something in the grandiosity of the images – the very acclamation “Hail to the Dark Lioness” – that seems calculated to compensate for the way lesbian, transgender and black people so often feel invisible or mis-recognised.
And so “Dark Lioness” is a high-wire act in another respect, says the historian Hlonipha Mokoena: “How many times can you photograph yourself before it becomes a series of sophisticated selfies?” For Mokoena, “the possibility of narcissism is mitigated by the fact that Muholi conceptualises these images as social commentary.” Muholi’s dark lionesses are a conjuring up – as one might do of one’s ancestors – of an imagined community of fellow travellers.
And this, perhaps more than an act of un-gendering, is what lies behind Muholi’s recent embrace of the pronoun “they”. Some of the participants that Muholi has photographed have transitioned into fully male identities. This does not seem to be Muholi’s own path. But being called “ma’am” or “mama” or “girl” has worn the artist down. Female pronouns or honorifics had the effect of either “saving you or disrespecting you” and Muholi was “over that”. But “at the same time, it becomes complicated when you have to lose your femalehood” to demand this respect.
More important for the artist is the act of “decolonisation” that comes with using “they”. There are no gendered pronouns in Zulu. The use of “they” allows one to play with gender – to mask it or to underscore it – in English as in Zulu, Muholi says. And to give the message – an African precept – that one does not walk alone. “I say ‘they’ as in my ancestors, and even deeper than that. The collective. To say, ‘I am not [just] one. I come with many forces’.”
It was in this spirit that Muholi took the whole pride to see “The Lion King” on Broadway. It was the highlight of everybody’s trip, Muholi’s included, but when we met a few months later, the dark lioness had retreated to her lair, financially and emotionally drained. The ideal of community clearly sustains the artist but also exhausts them – especially when it seems elusive. In New York there had been grand plans, but once everyone got back home the pack dispersed into the exigencies of their everyday lives.
At our Johannesburg meeting Muholi was accompanied by some close collaborators, but as the afternoon wore on, I detected a fundamental solitude behind the communal identity. Was there more of the conventional artist – the outsider in the garret – hiding in there, beneath the leather hat?
“The dream, it’s bigger than me,” Muholi says.
INSIDE THE HOUSE OF MUHOLI
Yaya Mavundla, Muholi’s glamourous publicist (above, left), describes herself as being “fully fabulous”, South African lingo for being out and proud as a transgender person. Born male, Mavundla, now 29, grew up in a rural part of Zululand, where she was badly bullied. She says that taking part in gay beauty pageants helped her to take pride in who she was. She sees it as her mission to “normalise” being transgender in South Africa.
Mavundla started working with Muholi after she was photographed for the “Brave Beauties” series, which focuses on transgender women. In one of the images, an impeccably coiffed Mavundla is wrapped in a cellophane bikini, gazing defiantly into the distance. “I love transwomen,” says Muholi. “They have that…what’s the word?...bravery.” Muholi tried to “get beyond just the beauty and the clothing” to hint at the difficulties that transwomen have to overcome. “I don’t know how she does it,” Muholi says of Mavundla.
Mavundla loves her portraits. “I’m like, ‘wow! This is actually how I look! You know, if you don’t get confirmation from the outside of who you are, it’s difficult. But if you have photographs like this – and you get such a response to them – what more could you want?”
Lerato Dumse, also 29, is Muholi’s collaborator and travel companion (above, right). Her role involves everything from helping to set up Muholi’s shots, to arranging for participants to come from townships and surrounding areas to gallery openings, to editing Inkanyiso (inkanyiso.org), Muholi’s online forum for “queer activists”. Where Muholi is expansive and brimming with ideas, Dumse is efficient and precise – Muholi likes to joke that Dumse is the more mature of the pair.
After discussions with Dumse about the Black Lives Matter movement and the student decolonisation movement in South Africa, Muholi sharpened the artistic focus on race and self-portraits. At the moment Dumse is researching how traditional African cultures have accommodated, and even accepted, both homosexuality and gender fluidity.
Like Mavundla, Dumse joined forces with Muholi when she sat for a portrait. There have been five of these now, taken over the course of five years. In each of them, she is wearing men’s clothes – a button-down shirt, a checked jacket. Her expression is austere and soulful, and her shaven head is cocked slightly as if to ask: does it matter whether I seem male or female? One of the portraits is proudly displayed in Dumse’s family home in the township of KwaThema, east of Johannesburg. “I love my photograph. So does everyone who comes to visit. They can’t believe how beautiful it is, even though there’s just a stack of bread crates in the background.”