Zanele Muholi

MaID, Brooklyn, New York


Sorry, no image available

Not on display
Zanele Muholi born 1972
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 297 x 217 mm
Purchased with funds provided by Priti Chandaria, Emile Stipp and Mercedes Vilardell 2017


This is one of a group of black and white self-portraits in Tate’s collection from the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, in which Zanele Muholi portrays herself in a variety of guises, with a range of props and adornments and against different backgrounds (Tate P82041P82049). In some, such as Thembitshe, Parktown (Tate P82047) she poses against plain backgrounds wearing only a single item – in this case a cosmetics bag turned inside-out. In others, she is posed against graphically-patterned backgrounds, decorated with items not traditionally associated with dress. In one image she wears a metal chain; in another she has decorated herself with strips of white masking tape across her torso and hair. Muholi began Somnyama Ngonyama in 2012 and as of May 2016 the group contains approximately forty images. The titles are in Zulu, the artist’s home language, and usually reference the geographical location where they were made. Though there are connections between the individual photographs, they also stand as works in their own right and do not have to be displayed together.

In her work as a photographer and self-identified ‘visual activist’, Muholi focuses on the experiences of the black male transgender and lesbian community in South Africa. In the series Only Half the Picture 2003–6 (Tate P81289P81294) she realised this through close-up, intimate and mostly anonymous studies of women’s bodies; in Faces and Phases 2006–ongoing through portraits of women accompanied by first-hand accounts (written and audio) that communicate their individual experiences; and in Weddings 2013 through documents of joyful celebrations. While Muholi continues to address socio-political themes through portraiture in Somnyama Ngonyama, this body of work is more autobiographical, diaristic and participatory in nature than her previous projects. She has described this as follows:

Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’) is an unflinchingly personal approach I have taken as a visual activist to confronting the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation through portraiture. The entire series also relates to the concept of MaID (‘My Identity’) or, read differently, ‘maid’, the quotidian and demeaning name given to all subservient black women in South Africa.
(Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, accessed 9 July 2016.)

In the four years since Muholi began making the self-portraits, she has experimented with a range of different characters and archetypes. Some touch on personal narratives and traditions, others on current affairs; each and every photograph is a commentary on a specific event in South Africa’s political history, as she notes ‘from family to society and back again’. In all of the photographs she deliberately tones down highlights to exaggerate the darkness of her skintone. This, she has explained, is a statement about reclaiming blackness and exorcising culturally pervasive images of black women as an exoticised ‘other’ (ibid., accessed 9 July 2016).

Muholi has described how the Somnyama works are about connecting with herself and the pride of blackness and reclaiming the representation of bodies like her own. For the MaID works, for example, she noted that, ‘I had in mind a staple image of feminism: a woman showing her biceps in a shirt and headscarf. This is a version of a Zulu feminist.’ (Email correspondence with Tate curator Kerryn Greenberg, 2 November 2015.)

The form of each self-portrait differs depending on the props and camera that Muholi had to hand at the time and, as they were shot in natural light, their tone is affected by the lighting conditions at that particular moment. Due to the fact that she uses different cameras and film stock, not all of Muholi’s works can be printed at the same size. This difference in scale lends displays of her work a dynamic quality.

Further reading
Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, e-book,, accessed 9 July 2016.
Jenna Wortham, ‘Zanele Muholi’s Transformations’, New York Times, October 8 2016, accessed 9 July 2016.

Emma Lewis
May 2016, updated November 2016

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