Zanele Muholi Cummer Museum exhibition opens on April 15, 2021. How did this show of Muholi’s brilliant, provocative, confrontational self-portraiture land in Jacksonville, Florida? One reason: Andrea Barnwell Brownlee.
When Andrea Barnwell Brownlee assumed directorship at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in December of 2020, she promised change. She cast a “radical,” progressive, vision for the 60-year-old institution in Jacksonville, FL.
“I’m thinking about opportunities to bring something to Jacksonville that is going to stretch people; bringing ideas, individuals, concepts, works of art, that are going to stretch people,” she told Forbes.com.
Brownlee didn’t stop there.
“Jacksonville has incredible opportunities to really soar and present exhibitions that have never been to this part of Florida; we have the opportunity to bring (new) artists, projects, ideas and topics to the forefront,” she added.
During the interview process which resulted in her being named only the fourth African American woman to lead a “mainstream” American art museum, she went big, beyond where the Cummer has been before.
“I was asked what would my vision be in five years for the institution and I talked about it being on a national platform,” Brownlee told the museum’s search committee.
Her five-year vision has been achieved in five months as the Cummer Museum announced March 5th it would be hosting “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness,” an internationally touring exhibition featuring more than 80 self-portraits by visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, b. 1972).
Zanele Muholi Cummer Museum
Following this show on Muholi’s exhibition calendar is the first major survey of her work in the United Kingdom, hosted at Tate Modern in London, among the handful of most prestigious contemporary art museums in the world.
That may be the first time the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and Tate Modern have been mentioned in the same sentence. For the Cummer, showcasing the artwork of a living, African, non-binary gendered photographer is utterly unprecedented.
Jacksonville has Brownlee to thank for that.
Brownlee exhibited this show in 2018 while director at Spelman College in Atlanta. A COVID-caused gap in the Cummer’s exhibition calendar allowed for Brownlee to work her connections and squeeze the show in. This will be the final venue for the exhibition in the United States.
Not bad for a first act.
“Zanele Muholi’s visually arresting self-portraits compel viewers to consider timely topics such as contrast, dignity, solidarity, difference, history and activism in meaningful ways,” Brownlee said in announcing the exhibition. “Each one invites deep looking and, ultimately, encourages viewers to ask themselves critical questions about empathy, courage and the power of each and every voice.”
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.
Each black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social (in)justice, human rights and contested representations of the Black body.
“I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other,” Muholi has said of this work. “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.”
The exhibition will be on view at the Cummer through June 20. Admission on Tuesdays and Fridays is free.
Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin (intensified through enhanced contrast applied in post-production) becomes the focal point of a profound, multilayered interrogation of beauty, pride, desire, self-care, well-being and the many interlinked phobias and isms navigated daily such as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism and sexism, to name but a few.
“(Somnyama Ngonyama offers) a compelling and visionary mosaic of identities, an exquisite empire of selves,” exhibition curator Renée Mussai, senior curator for Autograph London, the show’s organizer, said. “Each photograph in the series, each visual inscription, each confrontational narrative depicts a self in profound dialogue with countless others: implicitly gendered, non-conforming, culturally complex and historically grounded Black bodies.”