The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida began wrapping up its presentation of “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness,” on Friday, June 18th, by hosting a conversation between museum Director and CEO Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and the artist, who participated via Zoom from their studio in Durban, South Africa. The exhibition of photographic self-portraits closes on the 20th.
“Somnyama Ngonyama” took on numerous meanings for the tens of thousands of visitors who saw it over the course of its international tour which featured five stops in the United States, Jacksonville being the last. Most importantly, for the empowered, beautiful representations of a non-binary, Black figure it brought into museum spaces, it gave presence to “people who didn’t think they count,” as the artist told Brownlee during their conversation.
“Somnyama Ngonyama” gave voice to a previously voiceless audience. A lyrical voice. A soaring voice.
Muholi gave a face – their (the artist’s preferred pronoun) face – to the struggle of non-binary people, Black people, the working poor, and those still working to break free from the shackles of centuries-long institutional racism, be that in South Africa, the United States, or anywhere else around the world. In doing so, they became a champion. A champion for people who’ve previously been considered disposable.
“You, your father, your sister, your mother – you are important,” Muholi said during the conversation, speaking to the marginalized audiences they intended their artwork to touch personally and what message they hope was received.
“Somnyama Ngonyama,” of course, also spoke to a broader audience. “It’s about time we learned to share these spaces, learn to ask questions” when confronted with something we don’t understand Muholi said.
Many of the self-portraits on display were confrontational. Their enormous scale. Their direct gaze. Their Blackness, as described beautifully by Jacksonville writer Nikesha Williams.
If this subject matter made a guest uncomfortable for any reason, Muholi demanded that guest answer “why?” Why do you view me as “other?” As “less?” Look at me. Look at us. We are as human as you in spite of how we’ve been treated. As human, and likely more humane.
In the hour-long conversation, Muholi’s joyous smile and playfulness stood in marked contrast to the seriousness and intensity of their work. Their previous working relationship with Brownlee likely put the artist at ease, allowing this side of their personality to come through.
A New Era at the Cummer
While Muholi was obviously the featured attraction for the conversation and the exhibit, neither would have been possible in Jacksonville without Brownlee. She pulled a rabbit out of the hat in bringing “Somnyama Ngonyama” to the Cummer, filling a last-minute hole in the exhibition schedule. She had the stroke to get one of contemporary art’s biggest names to spend an hour on Friday night talking to Jacksonville, Florida from the other side of the world. “Somnyama Ngonyama” was about Muholi. The subtext, however, speaks volumes about Brownlee.
This presentation broke new ground for the Cummer. A non-binary, Black, contemporary photographer from South Africa in the spotlight of the 70-year-old museum in the Deep South. Their face – 10-feet tall – on banners outside the institution. On billboards across town.
The exhibition made tangible Brownlee’s dramatic, contemporary, progressive vision for the Cummer, how she’s not waiting to take action on that vision, and how she has the stroke to realize it – in a major way.
As an audience member for the conversation, I kept remarking on how “big” the whole thing felt. How major this exhibition felt. This show and this conversation would have previously taken place in Miami, not Jacksonville. Brownlee has trashed those lowered expectations in six months on the job.
Muholi had a retrospective just close at Tate Modern in London, one of the world’s two or three most prestigious contemporary art institutions. At the same time, their work was on exhibition in Jacksonville. That’s unprecedented. An astonishing flex of Brownlee’s directorial muscle.
Bringing one of contemporary art’s most prominent figures into conversation with guests at the Cummer was also stunning. That’s never happened here before. This is what “major” museums do. This is what museums in New York and Chicago and Dallas do. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee is turning the Cummer into a “big city” museum without the big city.
Listening to Muholi and Brownlee in conversation, I felt something I’ve rarely – perhaps never – felt at the Cummer. I felt connected to the broader art world. The “Major League” art world. The cosmopolitan, New York, London art world. The art world we dream about from Jacksonville, but must travel for to experience.
“Somnyama Ngonyama” engaged the public – and welcomed a much broader public – to the Cummer in ways never done before. The exhibition was active and inclusive and heightened by poetry slams and a speaker series. Important museums are more than fixed walls and pedestals for paintings and sculpture. They are living, evolving, activated spaces – that’s what they should be. They should organize and promote programs and events and new works and fairs and festivals and local artists and education. That’s what Brownlee is doing here.
A great museum goes out into its community, it meets people where they are, then takes them by the hand to bring them back to the museum as a VIP. That’s what Brownlee is doing here.
In six months on the job, Brownlee has transformed the Cummer in important ways. I am thrilled by imagining what the next six years might bring.