When the Black lioness, Zanele Muholi writes the narrative.

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Zanele MuholiAccording to an African proverb made famous by the Nigerian Novelist Chinua Achebe, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. If you have heard that before and wondered what type of story the lion would write, then part of the answer is at the Autograph in London with Zanele Muholi’s latest exhibition, aptly titled “Hail the Dark Lioness” (Somnyama Ngonyama).

Morphed into a Black Lioness (literally – in Mothering Blackness II, the artist is wearing a mane similar to that of a Lion), and armed with a camera, she is bringing multilayered stories of the “hunt” around the world.

Each picture is a sharply contrasted black and white portrait that enhances the blackness of her skin tone. Beyond the stunning aesthetical value of the self-portraits, each one is a visual account of the experience of being black, being a woman, being part of the LGBT community today. To that effect, she turns personal, deeply personal or defiant and bold to embody these multiple identities of woman, sister, environmentalist, human rights and political activist.

With Basizeni, She pays tribute to her deceased sister. Whereas in Thulani II she pays homage to the South African miners gunned down during a strike in South Africa in 2012.

While each shot is powerful in its own right, together they reframe the narrative of the Black experience – and present it from the perspective of a Black woman. That is best summarized in “Bona”. The artist is laying down, gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. The mirror and the camera are no longer held by foreign hands, in a face to face that in the past has been fraught with misunderstanding, stereotypes, and misconception.

What Zanele Muholi has done, by holding the mirror and by standing simultaneously in front of and behind the camera, is to redefine the space occupied by Black women in the public sphere. She has made them visible, standing in their Blackness, giving them a voice, a face and an existence.

Left , Bester I, Mayotte 2015;
Left: Bester I, Zanele Muholi, Mayotte 2015;

Art shapes our culture and our history. As history has erased and or misrepresented a group of people for a period of time, part of the exhibition feels like redress, especially on the first floor with the portraits commissioned by Autograph. Through a series of pictures taken at the Old Fort, a former prison in South Africa, the artist pays tribute to the women’s struggle for freedom.

This is what happens when the lionesses write their stories. They become multifaceted, diverse stories that give a voice to those that history has constantly left out.

The exhibition “Hail The Dark Lioness” (Somnyama Ngonyama) runs until October 28th.

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