The Seattle Art Museum presents Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness , featuring photographs and large-scale photographic wallpapers from the South African visual activist’s ongoing self-portrait series.
Organized by Autograph, London and curated by Renée Mussai, this international touring exhibition confronts the complex global politics of race, gender, and representation. In the artist’s words, the series invites the viewer on “a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of self-representation and self-expression.”
“I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged ‘other,’” says Muholi. “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.”
From 2014–17, Muholi traveled around the world as part of an ongoing project, staging self-portraits loaded with symbols and moods derived from each location, primarily throughout Europe, North America, and Africa. In 76 selfportraits, the artist frames their face with ready-made objects and found materials that become transformed into evocative and historically loaded props. Scouring pads, clothespins, cowrie shells, and washing machine tubes signal associations with issues relating to race, gender, labor, global economies, ideas of beauty, and the environment. A meaningful name for each portrait is given in Zulu, the first language of the artist. In each image, their direct and uncompromising gaze follows you wherever you go. Psychologically charged, these portraits pose critical questions about social justice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body.