TILT Institute for the Contemporary Image

Zanele Muholi

Somnyama Ngonyama

These portraits were produced during a six-week residency with the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. They form part of their ongoing series of black and white self-portraits Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’), which confront and challenge the politics of race in the photographic archive.

In contrast to their life-long project of documenting members of the black LGBTQIA+ community of South Africa, for this body of work Muholi turns the camera on themself. The self-portraits in the series are taken while traveling in South Africa, America, Asia, and Europe; they reference fine art portraiture and fashion photography, using a range of materials and every-day objects.

In Muholi’s own words, “Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, I have portrayed myself in highly stylised fashion using the performative and expressive language of theatre. My face becomes the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure. By highlighting the contrast of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.