Conquering fears of queerness: Zanele Muholi’s ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’

Since she began taking photographs, Zanele Muholi has made it her life’s work to create a frank yet nuanced documentation of primarily black, LGBTI life in South Africa – in all its complexity. Her ongoing project Faces and Phases began as a reaction to the escalation of homophobic hate crimes and murders in SA. Through photography, she has sought to normalize and conquer fears of queerness in order to make life safer for individuals like her. Now, Zanele is turning her lens on herself.

In her latest exhibition titled Somnyama Ngonyama, or “Hail The Dark Lioness”, Zanele interrogrates blackness, African history, gender politics and the culture of selfies. We spoke to the South African photographer and visual artist about the activism of her work and its influences.

Bester I, Mayotte
Bester I, Mayotte

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a visual activist living in Johannesburg and born in Umlazi township in Durban. I’m known as a photographer, boxed as an artist. I love apples but not apple juice. I’m a member of the LGBTI community in South Africa and beyond. I’m a survivor. I have lived to document LGBTI lives. I’m a visual historian and archivist and living to produce visual history. I’m a lover too.

Why photography?

I was going through personal issues that needed therapy. Photography came as a calling, or rather it came into my life when I needed to heal the most. I was on the verge of suicide and the day I touched a camera I had an eagerness to see what I had shot the next day. I was shooting on film and every time I processed a picture I felt a sense of achievement and wanted to see more. At the time there was a notion that homosexuality was un-African and I wanted to challenge that. I felt the need to produce images that depicted me, and spoke for us as a black community.

Your work has largely been centred on bringing light to the black queer community and the various issues affecting them. Can you tell us about that?

I haven’t been documenting the LGBTI community as an observer, I document it as a member of the community and not from a distance. I speak, produce and document these visuals so that those who exist today and will be born tomorrow can have access to a factual visual history of the South African LGBTI black community.

Bona, Charlottesville
Bona, Charlottesville

How do you reconcile the environment or history you were brought up in with the work that you do, considering that homosexuality is often viewed as urban or western in black communities?

Homosexuality has always been there, it’s a part of African histories that have never had the opportunity to be documented because they weren’t of interest to the historians and anthropologists that came before us. We’ve always been here. There were names that were used in various tribes to express what we know today as LGBTI.

You’re exhibiting a series of self-portraits titled Somnyama Ngonyama at Stevenson starting this week, as well as photographs from your 2014 essay, Brave Beauties. Could you talk to us about what inspired the projects and what you hope to convey through them?

Recent events compelled me to use my artistic expression to deal with issues of blackness and black identity and use myself as “the subject of art”. Somnyama Ngonyama explores the female bodies in my family, how they look at themselves and the ways they navigate in and around certain spaces. It considers how many lesbian women have been reported on or have graced magazine covers, which sparks the issue of exclusion and discrimination. So I produced images that spoke to me, images I’d like to see. I shoot what I like and I like me.

The locations I shot in are of significance to our history as South Africa and the materials I used connect to the daily lives of black people. It’s about who we are as black people and how the struggles of the past have shaped the present.

Brave Beauties is about black beauty. I entered a lesbian pageant once and continue to attend pageants assisting with photography. I wanted to document the girls away from the stage, stripped of all the glitz and sharing the message that being queer is not a costume or appearance but rather skin deep.

Bester V, Mayotte
Bester V, Mayotte

In which ways have you witnessed your work being impactful over the past few years?

Being part and parcel of bringing visual activism to classrooms through various university programs. The aim and impact of my work is to educate and to share knowledge, within and outside of the LGBTI community, because as a community we need knowledge in order to defend ourselves. To have my work published in academic journals and used in various institutions is impactful for me because previous accounts of LGBTI history were theorised by outsiders in a language that excluded our narratives. So the work we produce is important because it’s a visual vernacular that people can believe in and find likeness in.

What do you think still needs to be done?

We have a lot of different experts in different fields, from engineers to domestic workers, who form part of the LGBTI community. We need them to come out as themselves and proudly, not just once a year at Pride. We need to be able to live our lives with as much freedom as heterosexuals live their lives. We need to be able to say that this is who we are, without shame. We need to create an African space where people understand that transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia and all phobias are unjust and intolerable. As LGBTI professionals we need to share knowledge with LGBTI youth. We need service providers that are sensitive to the needs of LGBTI community members, be it doctors, teachers or police officials. We’ve achieved a few things in the past few years but we need to do a whole lot more, we need to raise awareness and educate.

MaID IV, Syracuse
MaID IV, Syracuse

Despite our strong history as practitioners, creative careers aren’t necessarily encouraged in black communities. How you think we can begin to change that?

The perception that art is not a profession is based on different forms of oppression, because of a lack of appreciation our parents felt insecure about creative careers. We need to introduce art programmes in schools to encourage our youth. We can’t expect our children to become artists after matric. As artists we need to take some time off and avail ourselves at the schools we attended.

As a visual activist, what role and responsibility do you think artists play in our immediate communities and in society at large?

Speaking for myself and those around me, I’d say our responsibility is to educate people about the LGBTI, our existences and our resistances.

Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama is on at Stevenson in Joburg from 19 November – 19 December and from 4 – 29 January, with an artist walkabout on today.

Somnyama IV
Somnyama IV
NdivileII, Malmo
NdivileII, Malmo
Somnyama III
Somnyama III

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