Last year, Zanele Muholi found herself getting into what she describes wearily as an “unnecessary engagement” at a hotel check-in desk in New York. She had been invited to a conference, the room paid for by the organisers, but the hotel manager wouldn’t let her book in without a credit card or cash (she had neither on her). The tone of the exchange “led to something else” – she’s had it before in hotels: the feeling of suspicion, the idea she was trespassing or lost, rather than a guest. The following morning, in the hotel room she was finally allowed to stay in after much checking, Muholi channelled the experience into a self-portrait, her head covered by a mass of yarn. “I just felt so tangled and confined,” she says, “confused and angry.”
It hangs with dozens of others in a new UK show of the South African photographer’s work. Muholi created one self-portrait in 2012 but it wasn’t until 2014 that she went back to the project that would become Somnyama Ngonyama(translated as Hail the Dark Lioness), with the idea of doing 365 shots in all. “You live as a black person for 365 days, there are a lot of events and experiences that you go through in a year,” she says. “I wanted to map those important or specific moments.” Some were based on her own experiences, such as the hotel incident; others were from media reports of hate crimes and oppression.
She hasn’t made an image for a month but will make one today “to mark a particular issue”. Muholi has just returned from opening another show in Amsterdam, after which she posted a shocking video on Instagram appearing to show an Airbnb host pushing Sibahle Nkumbi, a friend and member of her team, down a flight of stairs. “I want to enjoy this,” she says, looking around at her work going up on the walls, “but there’s nothing much to enjoy really because of that incident. It never ends.”
It has often been, she says, extremely painful to delve into her experiences, and those of others, and recreate the emotions for these extraordinary powerful photographs. So there she is, wearing a miner’s hat and goggles, with an expression of shock etched on her face, to remember the Marikana massacre in 2012, in which 34 striking miners were killed by police. In another image, her head is covered in the plastic wrapping that once bandaged her suitcase. “I was thinking as you cross borders, the racial profiling that happens, which has to do with who you are, the colour of your skin, the questions you’re asked and the comments you get.” Coming to Europe last week, a friend was held and questioned for two hours. “At the end of the day, when you’ve been through that process, you feel like trash. You wonder why this always happens to people like us.”
Some are inspired by her life – in a full-body portrait she is naked and lying on a series of inflated plastic bags to represent the large fibroids she had removed from her uterus last year in an operation she wasn’t sure she would survive. Others require some knowledge of South Africa’s history to unpack the meanings – the rubber tyres around Muholi’s neck in one reference “necklacing”, the horrific punishment meted out to alleged apartheid collaborators. The image in which her face emerges from a fold of material is haunting, yet there is a protectiveness to it; when you realise the blanket is from a South African police cell that cosseted feel vanishes. The constant theme is of enduring pain, though there is always defiance in her gaze.
The props – or “materials” as Muholi calls them – deliver layers of meaning. Sculptural plastic tubes refer to the destruction of the environment; safety pins denote solidarity. In a portrait she made in tribute to her mother, who was a domestic worker, Muholi creates a “headdress” – familiar imagery from more than a century of (white) ethnographers’ exoticised pictures – from laundry pegs. Most of all, she says, “The black body itself is the material, the black body that is ever scrutinised, and violated and undermined.”
Muholi describes herself as a “visual activist”, not an artist (she is co-founder of the Forum of Empowerment of Women, and also founded Inkanyiso, a platform for queer and visual activism). One of eight children, she grew up in Durban. After a few jobs, she took a photography course and it changed everything. “I was frustrated. I was on the verge of suicide,” she says. “Photography saved my life. It was the only thing that ever made sense to me. I use art as my own means of articulation. And it heals me. When I really needed therapy and I wasn’t willing to sit with a shrink, I started to take photographs.”
One of her projects, Faces and Phases, an archive of portraits of South Africa’s black lesbian community, has been running for 11 years and is her life’s work. There was nothing like this when she was growing up, young and gay in a homophobic society, scarred by extreme violence. South Africa has some of the most progressive equality laws in the world, but that doesn’t translate as safety for the country’s LGBT population. Attacks, murders and “corrective” rapes of lesbians are a brutal reality. Muholi’s project is vital – several of the women she has photographed have since been killed, such as Busi Sigasa, a writer and poet who inspired it. “The risk we take is on a daily basis,” says Muholi, “just living, and thinking what might happen, not only to you but also your fellow activists and friends who are living their lives.”
Muholi is exposed, and her work has been targeted – her house was broken into and hard drives containing her portraits of women were stolen. She does worry about her safety. “I’m scared. I won’t pretend not to be.” But, she says, what is the alternative? “This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities. I always think to myself, if you don’t see your community, you have to create it. I can’t be dependent on other people to do it for us.” It is a continuing resistance “because we cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”
Her work “is a space for people to be visible, respected and recognised”. And, she adds, “being remembered most of all”.
Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lionessis at Autograph ABP, London EC2A. autograph-abp.co.uk.