Kate Arkwright reviews the book Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness by Zanele Muholi.
Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (translated from isiZulu) is a strikingly beautiful book containing artist Zanele Muholi’s series of photographic self-portraits of the same name. Reflecting on their experience as a black, queer and South African visual activist, Muholi explores the politics of race, self-hood and representation. Muholi’s insistence on creating a space in which black, LGBTQIA+ people are recognised, remembered and celebrated is a key part of their work and by turning the camera on themself they foreground this refusal to be silenced or marginalised.
Having been struck by Muholi’s penetrating gaze and the powerful contrasts present in the series at the recent Tate Modern exhibition of their work, reading this book was an excellent opportunity to see the images in greater detail and learn more about Muholi’s significant contribution to art and activism. The large format of the book, excellent quality of the reproduced images and evocative writing found throughout means that it is highly impactful, conveying both the raw emotional energy of Muholi’s lived experiences and the profound impact the series has had on its audiences.
Upon first glance, the contrast between black and white immediately stands out as the dominant visual feature of both the photographic series and the book itself. Muholi has edited these photographs, darkening their skin and increasing the contrast between the black and white elements of the images. Jackie Mondi, one of the book’s contributors, describes this as a ‘declaration of the power of blackness’ and this is certainly the effect felt by the viewer. In darkening their skin, Muholi’s eyes become a focal point of many of the images. By refusing the racial and colonial hierarchies implicit in the medium of photography, Muholi’s gaze confronts the viewer directly, forcing them to look inwards and to question their notions of race, identity, self-hood and society as a whole.
Interspersed throughout the book, printed on matt-black paper that contrasts the glossy white of the photo pages are contributions by twenty-four authors, curators and poets that pick out important details of the photographs and provide both art historical and political context for the series. With many of the essays drawing on cultural and critical theory, some may feel inaccessible to the average reader, however, the profound personal impact that Muholi and their work has had on every contributor is clear throughout. Although interpretations and personal reflections on specific works are offered by the contributors, most of the images are featured without accompanying text allowing the reader to make their own connections and encouraging a greater degree of self-reflection.
Culminating in an extended interview between Muholi and Renée Mussai (Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial & Collections at Autograph), the deeply personal and political nature of the series and book is further emphasised and the reader is left both moved and inspired to make an urgent, active commitment to change. I would therefore recommend this book to anyone interested in the power of photography to enact social and political change.
- Kate Arkwright