Award-winning artist and activist Zanele Muholi gets candid about her latest work, ‘Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail, the Dark Lioness’, and her unparalleled artistic legacy and activism.
Compiled by: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
All Images by Zanele Muholi (From Somnyama Ngonyama)
Zanele Muholi remains one of the most decorated photographers in Africa, and internationally.
After years of documenting the lives of black LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer) community, through her series Faces and Phases, her recent work Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness) sees her shift her lens to herself, and interrogating the history racism in South Africa.
Blacklight: How does it feel to be honoured with coveted awards like the Infinity award?
Zanele Muholi: I always say that everything is not really about me because I will not be here forever. It is for the LGBTQ+ community, so that the ones following in my footsteps have some sort of reference point.
However, I am grateful, because it means that the people that are featured in the work get to be recognised.
BL: How has your vision evolved over the years?
ZM: The mission is still the same, and that is to create an archive that will be part of South African history.
The work needs to remain relevant, so that a person who is thinking of coming out tomorrow (young or old) can have something that shows them they are not alone in their journey.
Sometimes we need some document to give us the strength. Something people can see or touch. Something they can pass on to the next person as information, because even with this generation there will be another generation that comes after.
BL: Can you tell us more about your latest exhibition, “Somnyama Ngonyama”?
ZM: Firstly, I was a bit uncomfortable with putting myself in front of the camera for this exhibition because I am also a human being. When I look into the mirror there is some sort of unease depending on which side of the bed I woke up on. But, I really wanted to do it in order to reclaim my blackness.
Also, as much as we photograph other people, it’s important to do some sort of introspection. I wanted to speak about racism and I wanted it to be my own statement and not expose another body in my experience.
I really wanted to be honest with myself and share my experience as a person raised by a domestic worker. It’s my response to the racism that is still brewing here in South Africa, especially with white people mimicking black people and painting their faces black, while also looking at historic stories of women like Saartjie Baartman.
I am basically trying to investigate reality by looking into myself.
BL: What advice do you give to members of the LGBTI+ community, who look up to you?
ZM: I always tell the ones I work with to work hard and not focus on their sexuality.
We are brilliant, beautiful and brave people, so we must work hard to make sure we do everything better. So, work hard no matter how hard life can be.
BL: What does love mean to you?
ZM: To anyone who is breathing and living, and still chooses to love, in whatever contexts, big ups to you guys.
I believe in love so much. I believe us same-gender-loving people should always stick together, love and respect one another before we can ask other people to love and respect us.
I know that love is a scary thing, but I truly believe that before I can love the next person I should first give that love to myself.
Follow Zanele’s work as an LGBTQ+ activist on inkanyiso.org