The Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness launch event started with an inspired tour by New Art Exchange’s CEO, Skinder Hundal. From Hundal’s mouth and seconded by me: “These works by this world-leading portraiture artist don’t want you to be a passive viewer, they want you to explore the existence of the black woman in South Africa. They tackle critical issues, and take control of the depth of blackness.”
Immersion in Muholi’s monochromatic self-portraits series, which is punctuated by some large-scale pieces, instantly made me appreciate that Muholi owns the space. These magnified portraits loom and absorb the area, all the way up to the high ceiling.
The blackness enhanced editing of the portraits heightens contrasts; most significantly, Muholi’s black skin against other elements. Visually, Muholi is indeed “reclaiming their blackness”. The boldness created by this editing technique and Muholi’s regal stature also add impetus to other activist issues within the collection. Muholi addresses both domestic servitude of disenfranchised black South Africans and gendered identities, as well as environmental issues, through the use of found objects like laundry pegs and plastic.
The whites and pupils of Muholi’s eyes create a stark contrast, and enhance the numerous eyes peering out of each portrait; effectively subverting “the gaze”.
Within this collection of over 75 portraits are two pieces being exhibited for the first time. And given that this exhibition is part of the build-up towards NAE’s ten-year anniversary, these newest additions feel like a celebratory bonus. Muholi has also gifted us an autobiographical video installation until the end of the exhibition that’s well worth getting down for in itself.
Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail The Dark Lioness runs at New Art Exchange until Sunday 24 June 2018
New Art Exchange website