Zanele Muholi

Somnyama Ngonyama

This South African photographer and visual activist celebrates black culture with this series of powerful self-portraits. Somnyama Ngonyama means “Hail, dark lioness!”. The artist uses her body to look at issues such as race and its representation in the visual arts, intentionally altering and exaggerating the colour of her skin. She looks at the camera with a defiant air; she combines everyday elements and materials with aesthetic aspects of black culture to provoke a political discussion. Muholi plays skillfully with the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and ethnographic images with the intention of questioning the current concept of beauty and aesthetic patterns. In this series, the author, who has a long history of militancy for the rights of blacks and the LGBTI collective, reaffirms her identity as a black, African, homosexual woman, as each self-portrait is a manifesto of resistance and, at the same time, a statement about the right to freedom and pride in each person’s appearance, race, gender expression or sexuality.


Muholi was born in 1972 in Durban. Photographer, reporter and co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, an organization of black lesbian women who support the employment of unemployed and rural women. Her work is considered exceptional in South Africa because it is the only one that faces the notion that lesbian sexual practices are not as alien to African culture as is believed, which shows the misunderstanding of the prevailing stereotypes about the sexuality of black women. In 2005 she received the Tollman Award for Visual Arts. In 2009 she won the Casa Africa Prize for Photography in Bamako. Her work have been exhibited at Las Palmas, Johannesburg, Modena, Toronto, Berlin or Massachusetts, among others. Her series Faces y Phases are included in the São Paulo Biennial (2010), Documenta (2012) and the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013).


Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.