Dialogue with Zanele Muholi at Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville welcomes the final stop for the international traveling exhibition, “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.” Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, South Africa) was a hair stylist before they began photographing violence forced upon the local LGBTQ community in her home country.

“After these years of documenting the LGBTQ community, Muholi decided to turn the camera on themselves and use themselves as the subject, that’s what you see in this series,” Holly Keris, the Cummer’s chief curator, explains.

Muholi uses their (Muholi’s preferred pronoun) 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, employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and the familiar clichés of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics.

Muholi started this ongoing series in 2014. The most contemporary work in this exhibition dates from 2019. Muholi was known to have taken a self-portrait every single day, and pre-COVID, travel widely has part of her practice.

The photographs in the show are sparingly identified by a one-word title in isiZulu, an English translation of that word or phrase, the city or geographic location in which the photo was taken, and then the year it was taken.

Muholi purposely chose to omit a third-party art historical voice interpreting the work.

“This is all very intentional because what Muholi wants is for us, the viewer, to be a part of this process and to bring ourselves into this work,” Keris says. “So when Muholi made the decision to turn the camera on themselves, part of their methodology, part of the rationale behind that, was to reclaim their own identity, to reclaim their blackness, to reclaim their sexual orientation, to reclaim their gender identity in a way that was authentic to them, so they’re asking us to see them the way they want to be seen.”

“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.” Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens installation view.

Slow Looking

While the images initially present as fairly straightforward self-portraits – albeit stunningly vivid and stylized – a deeper investigation reveals much more.

“One of the things that Muholi said is that they feel that blackness is something that is often performed by others and usurped by others and so this series is part of that work to reclaim their identity, claim a place within the visual archive where people who look like Muholi might not have been represented earlier,” Keris explains. “Everything in here is designed to force you, as the viewer, to look, and not just to look, but to see and to be a part of this process.”

That requires time.

You’ll be rewarded for taking it.

“We talk a lot about close looking and slow look. You could come in and you can say, ‘yup, 12 portraits on a wall, great, got it,’” Keris says. “What the Cummer likes to do for our visitors, and (what) Muholi is asking us to do, is to not look at the group, not look at the set, but to literally commune with each (photograph), to bring yourself into this conversation, to look at the details they are using in these images, to see them, the way that they’re asking to be seen and to take that away with you.”

If this is your first exercise in close looking, you will be amazed how an artwork’s depth and impact on you grows the more time you spend in front of it in careful consideration. This exhibit offers a wonderful opportunity to practice your “reading” of artworks – your ability to decipher the messaging built into the object by the artist and understand what the artist is attempting to communicate.

“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.” Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens installation view.

The Mind of Muholi

Look closely to identify the range of mundane objects Muholi places into the self-portraits you might otherwise overlook.

“They’re incorporating run of the mill objects into each one of these self-portraits, again, as additional layers of meaning,” Keris said. “If Muholi wanted to tell you what the meaning was there would be a paragraph of text to all of this, but it’s not there, so again, that’s where we come into this conversation.”

What is Muholi saying with the incorporation of these objects?

Let’s take one: clothes pins.

Clothes pins are related to laundry. Laundry is a chore, work. Women’s work. Black women’s work. Domestic help, domestic labor.

Zanele Muholi Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
https://www.cummermuseum.org/visit/art/exhibition/muholiZanele Muholi Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

“When you look at how Muholi is using the clothes pins, as a decoration, a crown – so you’ve got this juxtaposition now between, potentially, the idea of ‘women’s work,’ ‘domestic labor,’ the ‘help,’ with ‘regal,’ with confidence, with nobility, with honor, with dignity – that’s how all of these images, when you take the time to really look at them, and ask those questions, that’s the dialogue that Muholi wants you to have – wants all of us to have,” Keris explained.

She places a push mop on her head in one image, again tying back to the narrative of women’s work and domestic labor. You’ll notice sponges, tires, chopsticks, latex gloves, vacuum cleaner hoses.

Plastic bags.

“When you think about plastic bags, what do you think about,” Keris asks. “Groceries, garbage, trash, disposable, waste. That is kind of ironic, right, it’s meant to be disposable, but it’s gonna stick around forever and ever and ever, and here, it’s becoming like this halo around (Muholi).”

When you take time with artworks, as you practice “reading” them and are better able to understand the hints and messages encoded within, an entirely new museum opens to you. You are no longer just looking at pictures, you are seeing stories, you are seeing history, the artists start “talking” to you, you are in dialogue.

This revelation first occurred to me after taking a guided tour of Madrid’s Prado Museum. It changed my life. I don’t have an art history background. I didn’t even realize – let alone appreciate – the subtle and overt messaging baked into great artworks. Now that I do the art museum has become not only a refuge of immense optical beauty for me, but an enriching intellectual exercise, a movie theater with countless stories being told, a meeting place to commune with history’s greatest artistic minds, an alternate, more truthful, people’s history of the world told by those who experienced it.

Like Muholi.

“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.”Connections with the Artist

Keep looking to find connections to the artist you didn’t consider previously.

“We all are choosing to present ourselves every day, we all got dressed this morning. We all made a decision about what masks we were going to put on, and what shoes we were going to put on, and if we we’re going to wear earrings. These are conscious decisions that we are making,” Keris said. “Many people these days are doing selfies, they are posting photos of themselves online, that’s all about our own representation, what Muholi is doing is no different. They are making statements about themselves as well, and so we’ve got the area in the in the adjoining room (to the exhibition) where visitors can answer some of these questions, or at least read other visitor comments and other feedback, to make sure that we’re getting the dialogue going because, again, the whole idea of this exhibition is this idea of a dialogue.”

Zanele Muhol, 'Sebenzile, Parktown,' 2016 © ZANELE MUHOLI. COURTESY OF STEVENSON, CAPE TOWN/JOHANNESBURG AND YANCEY RICHARDSON, NEW YORK
Zanele Muhol, ‘Sebenzile, Parktown,’ 2016 © ZANELE MUHOLI. COURTESY OF STEVENSON, CAPE TOWN/JOHANNESBURG AND YANCEY RICHARDSON, NEW YORK

Simultaneous to the Cummer show, Muholi has a solo career retrospective at Tate Modern in London, one of the world’s small handful of most prestigious contemporary art spaces.

See “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness,” through June 20, 2021 at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville where admission is free on Tuesdays, Fridays and every other Saturday.

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