The Visible Face: Zanele Muholi’s

By Shaun Lunga

“Faces and Phases” and “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness.”

Sourced Image

Zanele Muholi, 49, is a visual activist, performance artist, and contemporary photographer who uses the pronouns “they” and “them”. The change of pronouns from “she” to “they”, came while working on “Somnyama Ngonyama”, partly resting on the oppositional gender pronouns of “she” and “he”, and partially using “they” as a plural, presenting Muholi not just an individual, but as part of a historical community of African forbears.

Sourced Image

Muholi’s body of work, “Faces and Phases” (2006-2016), a series of black and white portraits focusing on the commemoration and celebration of black lesbian lives.  Faces and Phases challenge the conventional discourse on blackness, sexuality, gender, and class. Their work acts as a conversation with the invisible spirits. Muholi documents the complexities of LGBTQIA+ lives in their photo series “Faces and Phases” as a response to gender stereotypes, structural violence, and hate crimes. “Faces and Phases” further ask the questions: What does an African lesbian look like? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialized, and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this a man or a woman? Muholi’s work is pushing a political agenda. “We need to produce as many images as we can… photography is a language of it’s own, with specific baggage from history”.

“Somanyama Nonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness”

Sourced Image

An ongoing series of visceral self-portraits that challenges and responds to both history and the present. The photo series confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation through portraiture.

The entire series focus concept of MaID (“My Identity”). The photo series uses props such as rubber tires, electrical cords, and cable ties to reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation. Collectively, the portraits evoke the plight of workers: maids, miners, and members of the disenfranchised communities.

The images are powerful, and evoke strong emotions at first glance. You are being confronted by a powerful force. Zanele exaggerates the darkness of their skin as a way to reclaim their blackness: “My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me”.

Every prop that was used had a significant role in confronting and challenging the viewers, while asserting their identity on their own terms.

Sourced Image
Sourced Image
Sourced Image


“In Somnyama Ngonyama, I have embarked on a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of the selfie, self-representation, and self-expression.

I have investigated how photographers can question and deal with the body as material or mix it with objects to further aestheticize black personhood. My abiding concern is, can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in society and the position/s that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter?”

These self-reflective, deeply psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their exploration of the constraints of history, ideologies, and contemporary realities.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Start typing and press Enter to search