Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness

January 8 – March 20, 2021

Opening on January 8th, CVA is proud to present Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness, organized by Autograph, London and curated by Renée Mussai. In more than 80 self-portraits, celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South Africa, b. 1972) uses their body as a canvas to confront the deeply personal politics of race and representation in the visual archive. Their ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates to ‘Hail The Dark Lioness’ from isiZulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. 

Muholi states, “I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being Black; it is my skin, and the experience of being Black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as Black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”

Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin (intensified through enhanced contrast applied in post-production), becomes the focal point of a profound, multilayered interrogation of beauty, pride, desire, self-care, well-being, and the many interlinked phobias and isms navigated daily such as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, to name but a few.

The exhibition features photographs taken between 2012 - 2019 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 and people.

Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges viewers’ perceptions while firmly asserting their cultural and sexual identity on their own terms.

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Image: Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York