Zanele Muholi / Somnyama Ngonyama

South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi in conversation with Maria Abramenko

The artist and activist uses her art to deliver a strong political message and suggest a critical reflection on the paradigms of the contemporary society. Zanele Muholi celebrates black pride through portraits, with the intention of creating a progressive space within museums and galleries, including in the rhetoric of arts a beauty that was previously neglected.

You call yourself a visual activist, could you explain?

I call myself a visual activist because my work extends itself to activism. It is through my experiences and yearning for a just world that I am able to reflect and create work that can be geared towards challenging societal paradigms and critique the status quo. The self and body is very political – and my work centres itself around the body or bodies which in turn means it reflects more than just existence and identity, but challenges the prevailing times. It is a different approach, but very effective because it forces or initiates the process of reflecting.

You recently had a solo show in Belgium’s Uitstalling Art Gallery. How was this experience especially in community engagement?

Being at Uitstalling Gallery has been such a great experience, the opportunity granted to me means that I should extend knowledge learnt to creatives that are associated with Muholi Art Institute (MAI). I also got some time to produce new works which will be shown at upcoming exhibitions. There are also new connections established from this period of which I’ll forever treasure as I’ll be collaborating with some few individuals I met here.

What is Somnyama Ngonyama about?

Somnyama Ngonyama is about the politics of blackness and black pride. With the series I’m also recognising my ancestors and all those who came before me but their voices were silenced. It also calls for inclusion for black bodies at major galleries and museums that previously ignored our presence in our respective countries. Somnyama Ngonyama is my daily experience as I manoeuvre spaces that vilify us.

I guess we can see your art as a documentary, what is the mail message you deliver?

I think if everybody took urgency – and spent a lot of time reflecting on oneself and the journey in relation to society, perhaps people would have agency and own making informed healthy decisions that do not impact society in a negative light. The onus is on an individual to achieve that. It cannot be dictated. Nor can one be coerced towards consenting to creating an enabling and progressive space for themselves and everybody that is around them. There’s a multitude of mail messages that I deliver because when I create my work, it is informed by what I’m experiencing at that moment in time, of course, this is very much geared towards my experiences in the different spaces that I found myself and having had the opportunity to reflect, I then create work that embodies a multitude of narratives, a multitude of perspectives, a multitude of possible outcomes. I am a person who loves to archive because I’ve seen and felt a need. Where our narratives have never been narrated by us and or archived by us. As a result, we’ve acquired and accumulated a very distorted sense of historical archival of who we are in where we come from.

The other space of my documentaries is to reflect on self – and the concepts of self in society, Its progression, or lack thereof. The other aspect is to celebrate, celebrate one’s existence in a space where one cannot ‘BE’ in a space where the natural expectation of co-existing is limited, sanctioned, bared and or prohibited. Therefore, the process of celebrating, becomes a journey in which one may lead to a point of healing.

In your opinion, does an artist have to suffer in order to create?

An artist doesn’t have to suffer to create. However circumstances are not the same, others will produce artworks to respond to their immediate issues. That could be of political nature in which art is used as a vessel to convey a message to many for solidarity. On the other hand suffering is for everybody. Everybody suffers. Even the rich suffer, because we’ve all got some agonising discomforts – and wounds that we carry with us on our daily basis. They might not necessarily be from a space of deprivation. It might be a personal space. So, suffering is definitely not reserved only for artists. But in most cases, suffering is the confrontation that forces one to reflect; and in so doing, one is then transported or triggered to a place where they can find or create new ways, new thoughts, new feelings, new experiences, which then may translate itself into the body of work that one may produce. But essentially, suffering becomes a stimulus for most cases. And again, suffering might not be personal, but it might be something that just a person observes from another lens or observing someone suffering and it becomes a stimulus to get them to think. And I think as artists, we are fortunate that we have a medium in which we can translate our experiences and thoughts and make them practical.

Make them visual and make them speak volumes. Aesthetically. I think this is the case with everybody in the world. The person who creates software, could be coming from a space where they suffered because that software was not there, and then they create something that could add value to someone else’s life. The person who might write a song might be speaking from a space where they are heartbroken and this song becomes an outlet for them. So for most of the artists it then yes, say suffering becomes a stimulus in which it lays the basis or the foundation for us to a release. And in doing so, we released a test of ourselves, because quite often people identify with stimulus just as much as I’ve been stimulated. I can stimulate somebody else with my experience thus enabling or igniting the process of reflection. Through my experience reflect.

What is next for you?
The next is a retrospective show at MEP, Paris, opening on 1st Feb. 2023. In 2024 will return to Tate Modern, London for a retrospective because the 2020/21 retro was closed to Covid lockdown. Then my biggest dream is to have my own Museum which will focus on Women’s Arts & Crafts in South Africa.

Zanele Muholi / Somnyama Ngonyama


Artist: Zanele Muholi / @muholizanele
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Assistant: Alisia Marcacci / @miabrowe

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