If the cover of Somnyama Ngonyama doesn’t get you, I’m not sure what will. No title, no words, just Zanele Muholi draped and coronated, gazing outward and beyond. Her resemblance to Lady Liberty is no mistake. After all, we are looking at a portrait of Freedom reimagined.
But reimagined as what? A newer colossus? “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles”? Undoubtedly that, but without the torch. Her eyes, lights of an inner fire, are beacons enough.
A self-described visual activist, Zanele Muholi names the exiles to whom she attends. Born in South Africa in the early seventies, she grew up in the teeth of apartheid. Her mother was a domestic worker, bound to one family in servitude all her life. Add to this the abuse and marginalization of the South African LGBTQIA community, and you start to understand Muholi’s photographic personas.
Each portrait is both a social history and an autobiography. The photograph titled Bester V, for instance, shows Muholi, her hair adorned with silvery scouring pads, the kind used to scrub pots and pans. If Frida Kahlo comes to mind, diademed by strange, metallic roses, you might be registering a layer of the image. But Bester is the name of Muholi’s mother, and the wire pads her mother’s domestic tools, now no longer the implements of her subjugation but a life’s labor reclaimed.
Muholi admired her mother a great deal. Symbolic tributes to Bester, to her struggle and her beauty, appear in subtle ways throughout Somnyama Ngonyama, sometimes as washing machine tubes worn as headdresses, and sometimes as clothespins pinched in Muholi’s hair like the tines of a crown.
A number of essays, poems, and close readings feature throughout the book, providing indispensable commentary on Muholi’s visual activism. Along with the wrongs already described, Muholi’s photographs protest racism beyond the borders of South Africa, misogyny, poverty, cultural misappropriation, and environmental degradation.
Most enlightening is the final interview by Renée Mussai who, on the one hand, asks those questions that help us decode the political ciphers of Somnyama Ngonyama, and on the other, voices the enthusiasm of those who may not grasp the depths of historical injustice portrayed in the photographs but who find the strangeness and beauty of the images irresistible nonetheless.
For example, Mussai asks about the historical valences of a photograph called Thulani II, where Muholi dons a pair of goggles and a miner’s helmet. “Thulani means ‘be silent’,” Muholi explains. The photograph commemorates the miners killed, some thirty-four of them, at the Marikana platinum mine in 2012. Suddenly the book takes on a new aura of meaning, as the essays and poems, and even some of the photographs, printed in silver ink on black pages, reveal themselves as part of the project’s commemorative architecture.
“Still,” says Mussai, “this requires a certain level of interrogation and curiosity and, in some instances, in-depth research, paired with knowledge of [Muholi’s] intention,” to fully understand the photographs. But that’s okay, Muholi replies. “Sometimes you don’t need to be literal. Things could be read on multiple levels. . . . I also want to give the viewer a space to play with—to have that intimate, open-ended look when approaching each image . . . where it’s not so painful.”
But in both protest and play, blackness presides.
Blackness binds this thoughtful miscellany together, blackness as a state of being and blackness as a realm of expression—a distinction not so easily explained, but one that sometimes suggests itself when admirers assume that Muholi painted her skin for these photographs. “In Somnyama,” she responds, “my skin is the same it is in real life. . . . I don’t need to mimic being black. . . . This is who we are; this is who I am 24/7.”
But like Muholi’s gaze on the cover of the book, blackness reaches beyond some limit, some brink. That much we feel, even if the limit itself, nevermind what lies beyond, is difficult to put into words. Much like Kerry James Marshall who describes blackness in his paintings as the upper echelon—“non-negotiable,” “unequivocal,” and “commanding”—Muholi’s photographs don’t just depict blackness, they achieve it.
Hundreds of photobooks are published each year. Few, if any, will be remembered. And even then, it’s nearly impossible to predict the saving remnant. But every now and then, you just know one will last. Somnyama Ngonyama will last.