10 Jul 2021

Q&A David Chan In Conversation With Zanele Muholi 2021

On the 18th of May 2021, the opening of Zanele Muholi’s solo exhibition in Pearl Lam Galleries, David Chan held an online interview with Zanele Muholi. The following is a recap of the conversations.

David Chan (DC) is a Hong Kong and Shanghai-based curator who works with Pearl Lam Galleries and is the previous director of Osage Gallery and the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund.

Zanele Muholi (ZM) is a Durban-based photographer. They first studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newton, Johannesburg, and completed their Master’s Degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada in 2009.

  1. DC: Why did you title this series Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness? What does it mean?

ZM: Somnyama is all about the black beauty and also pride of being a black person, of being African…I could say my pride in speaking my mother tongue–my language, which is Zulu. So, it has a lot to do with the language. It has a lot to do with the multiple identities that I possess as a human being. but most of all it’s more about the grace and pride of being the person that I am–expressing myself visually and trying to make those people out there who might not have an understanding of black relatives, black archive, black aesthetic, and also presence. Maybe other people might have seen a lot of images of us in different spaces which are not documented by us or penned by us or not our visualization.

So with Somnyama Ngonyama, I wanted to take pride (in) the person that I am, using Ngonyama which is my mother’s clan name. When we take photographs, we tend to forget about where we come from and why we exist and express all (of) ourselves in a way that we know how to, so I think it’s important for one to get a sense of our visual background and bring forth all the elements that are attached to our beings and put them in the fore.

So Somnyama, it’s like beautiful dark darkness. For most people, when they think of someone that is dark or when they think of the word dark or black, it’s always projected as negative. So, I wanted to make sure that I bring forth positive imagery that speaks to me, that is about me–that touches on personal experiences–that we do not use to project as photographers.

So, this is me in front of you with my complexities that are in place projected in almost every image that you are looking at.

Vika, The Decks, Cape Town, 2019, Gelatin silver print in frame, Edition 1/8, Artwork Size: 59.4 x 43.4 cm

Vika IV, The Decks, Cape Town, 2019, Gelatin silver print in frame, Edition 2/8, Artwork Size: 60 x 46 cm

Labo V, Torino, Italy, 2019, Gelatin silver print in frame, Edition 1/8, Artwork Size: 80 x 57 cm

2, DC: What is your process of making these photographers?

ZM: The process comes in different ways, different forms, and different meanings to everyone. For me, it’s about travel, personal experience, presence, personal projection, and also expression in a different way, using all that is at my disposal that is accessible in which I respond to what has just happened or what connects to historical moments that we do not tend to deal with (immediately). So, the process is simple.

It is to take self-portraits using a remote control or cable or button. It depends on what people use but I used a remote to take those images. It takes seconds, maybe an hour or so, with the camera on a tripod if it is connected… (It’s) like a self-timed shoot, then (I) transfer all the works that have been produced or that have been produced, and then deal with post-production. It is during this post-production in which you get the best aesthetic that you want to get as a final product, which then speaks to the “Somnyama”–you know, all the anticipation that comes with photo taking or photo making that becomes a whole because at first, it’s just like the moment that you don’t know what’s next or what this whole thing is going to become, but with all that process, it means preparing and thinking through the whole mission that you have in which you visualize or that is at your disposal or that is within your surroundings to just get that one image. So, what then becomes the Somnyama is that post-production that becomes magical. It is the post-production that requires the contrast that brings the best of each and every visual document that you see as Somnyama.

3, DCAre you using photography as a form of diary?

ZM: A diary is one thing and it could be so distant from your feelings but then I use photography as therapy. So, I have so many issues. I have so many personal issues which bring forth those emotions that are attached to each and every photo that I have taken. So, it doesn’t come from a funny or joyful place–it always attaches or connects with pain. You know, most of them. So those responses that I have had that led to each and every picture speak to some painful experience or some experience that triggered those emotions which then led to that particular image. As you see, (in) most of the images I’m not smiling because there is nothing to laugh at, especially when most people are experiencing racism, when most people are experiencing xenophobia, when most people are experiencing queerphobia, transphobia, and all the phobias and the “isms” that are negative and that have different impacts (on) their lives or that displaces them or leaves them ridiculed or that makes them feel unwelcome.

Each and every picture has a prop or a material of consent that has its own history–that has its own narrative–that if given a moment to speak out, each and every piece that I’ve used, you will say something about itself–I will say, for instance, the image “Aphelile” (was) taken at the height of COVID and we (were) stuck indoors. Nobody (knew) what to think. A lot of people (were) losing their lives left, right, and center. We (were) told to take precautions because you don’t want to put other people at risk and you also want to protect yourself. So, I guess at this period, most creatives came up with a visual or they came up with documents that spoke to the moment in response to COVID or in response to the pandemic that has hit the world by storm. So, I used the mask in front of a mirror-like mirroring myself, reflecting all the going on in our lives or in our household.

So, that picture and picturing others and relating my own fear in front of a camera was one of the ways in which I thought okay… these are at the moment, but also it could be a win or lose kind of situation. Either I take the precautions–either I just ignore that what’s really going on right now is really happening or just move on. So the only way in which one wanted to memorialize was through this image which then goes beyond just it being a visual diary or that moment being diarized, but then it becomes that document that achievable, that leaves as a memory that will live beyond us,  where the future generations when they look at that particular document they always know that there was the year 2020, the year 2021… And if born of that period, the mask would become that person’s first name and COVID then becomes the second name of that person.

As painful as it may seem–especially to the generations that have lost their grandmothers, that have lost their family members–that have lost those that were connected or related to them–that document obviously won’t come down as a positive image, but it would always work as an experience, as a moment that forces one to pause and think of how we survived or how some of the family members survived. Yeah, so some images go beyond just them being their visual entry or their diary entry, but then they force us to think beyond or they let us breathe and enjoy life in different ways. (It) depends on how we read them or how we want to reference them. So, photography is more than just a visual entry in a diary or it’s more than just like a diary, reading, or text. It’s just beyond that. And how I work on that memory to me is processed with all my six senses.

It’s visual and it forces one or me or those who (are) attached to (or) moved by it to think (about) what they’re looking at and how that object or piece of material connects to them even if we are not in the same continent or we are not in the same country or we (do) not speak the same language or (are) not of the same race.

BANZI IV, 2019 Gelatin silver print in frame, Artwork Size: 80 x 74.8 cm

Vumani, ISGM, Boston, 2019, Gelatin silver print in frame, Edition 1/8, Artwork Size: 80 x 80 cm

4, DC: What are some of your thoughts or feelings during and after the process of making your work?

ZM: Sometimes when thinking (about) “before” and “after”, the “before” is more… like a journey to be undertaken if I could simplify it. When I’m thinking I have to take photographs, what do I want to say, but I think I’ve used almost every piece of something? How can I use this without repeating the previous shot taken and already out there in the world, shared and also probably hung (on) people’s walls, especially for those who collect photographs? It becomes harder, that journey, like many kilometers to travel without reaching there because it’s not yet processed or not yet done. And then the “after”–it’s exciting because I could play with that image, but getting started… that ignition is always a key or major because I want to do it, but how is it going to look like and when the image is taken I’m no longer myself and I don’t look like this.

And most of the images are like highly feminized, which is not my cup of tea or 24/7 kind of living, I’m kind of like in between… like androgynous kind of.

For most of my work, it’s like femme, but that’s not my language. And then for some ways, I’m like kind of masculine with not much dress. It then reads as different, and also it speaks to ancestry or connection with the males in my family and then with the feminine. It is in response to the history of women or histories of women and history of female body beings in space and how they (are) treated and how they (are) objectified. Then it becomes like so many things. And when you look where I’m wearing a headscarf, that’s a different person that connects to my mother, who is late and then you have other ones in which I am responding on a female gender body in space that (has) been ill-treated or a person who has gone through an experience that almost connects to my work.

So, with all of this, how do you then create images that speak to them–that speaks to you, that speaks to so many people in which you kind of emphasize the need (for) self-love, which is not easy but so complicated on its own just like the thought of what does it mean to self-love, to self-care, to reconnect with the inner being or self? So, it becomes that complex/ complicated document when looking at these visuals and you think to yourself. “Oh, wow. That’s the thing.” So people tend to read mostly the objects that are used in these photographs and the materials that are used in these photographs because they’re accessible to them or they know of them because they use them at their disposal. So, it’s different, but in all I just want to preach the importance of self-representation, to speak your truth if you can.

And also to make a statement when or where there is a need to promote scripting or writing of black-black histories, using (the) self as a subject to say that this whole thing and these issues and these personal experiences they start with us and it’s very important that we share them without fear or fail because if we do not change the visual history, nobody (will) do (it) or write that visual narrative for us or on our behalf because your personal experience is your personal experience, and if you feel that you are not like fully represented or not represented at all, you have to take action and try to be responsible and do your bit. And then the next person will continue from where you have started or where others have started.

Speaking as a black person in South Africa, when I don’t see many of us in the media or mainstream media, what do I do? Do I complain? I’m struggling with this self-loving, so that the bit that I could do is to photograph myself. It’s a little bit; It’s not much that I’m doing to say, Okay, by the way, if I cannot indulge on certain things, just share a picture at least that will make another person wish to take their own pictures and then it means that a million South-Africans or a million Africans taking pictures, painting their own pictures will then leave this world with massive documents that will be read millions (of) years to come, which will then become like rare books that lives over generations.

And when this planets changes into somethings that we don’t know because we might not be there then, then the next generations will look at us as these foreign bodies that once lived in which they read about a thing or two like how we taught at schools or universities about African tribes and their regalia that they wore, the attires or the traditional dress that they (would wear), and the headscarves that they had back then. We just cannot make sense how they used little or natural products or herbs to make this look so beautiful. And we get excited and we want to use that as a reference to what we do presently and what (do) we call it these days? We say it’s fashion or high fashion, and we’re talking about the trash that has become something, but it once existed before.

The colours that we paint in our photographs–how we stand next to something because we want to look good–it existed before, but maybe a person wasn’t standing next to the mirror or next to the rock and what was next to the rock is now a table. What was the mirror maybe was a reflection in (the) water, and it was still a beautiful image. And how it was produced or realized, it was not the cameras as such, but it was a different form of a plate that was turned into something so important or remarkable, which leads to the aesthetic that we speak about these days. So, these images are just for processing, for people to learn from them, and also for people to care and to rethink of what visuality is all about.

What is black personhood all about? How (do we) change the narrative and rethink or learn (about) or respect people’s differences, people’s races, and people’s aesthetics and people’s presence? And when people do not understand something, it allows them to ask questions in order for them to get proper responses to learn from those.

So, Somnyama Ngonyama is just that educational piece of visual document that I guess speaks to the masses. And if people don’t get it, I guess they’ll be affected by those visuals in a different way and they’ll have something to take home with (them) because one could ask why are we so infested by so many black images? It’s because they are not used to seeing many in the countries or respective countries or maybe there are many black people who exist in those spaces but they never get an opportunity to photograph themselves to process their presence in those spaces, to project themselves in a light manner which won’t make them to be dissed or displaced.

So, it (serves) to dismantle all the systems in place that devalues or disadvantages or undermines a black body or a black person, or expertise rather of a black person. And in my headspace, I could say that there are so many pictures in the world, but most of them–most beautiful black people’s images–were not taken by them. They were seen by others, they were captured by others, they were projected by others in their own… in those third parties’ way. It was never about the first person. 

So now, in this instance, I just wanted to use the “I” as in ethnographically, “I” as in me, giving myself–presenting, projecting, dispatching myself–to the world in this manner. So, people get to rethink, respect, and also reconnect with these bodies that they never did before. So there’s so much into it.

It’s like overloaded and it’s one of the documents in which you use your sight. You want to touch; you want to say something. So there are so many dialogues that are being created with this document that you are seeing in front of you but it is a personal archive.

It’s a visual creation that is not common, which is getting common these days because there are so many people who are either painting themselves black or want to mimic this blackness, or share it in a certain way.

Mihla, Port Edward, 2020, Gelatin silver print in frame Edition of 7/8 Artwork Size: 70 x 70 cm

5, DC: For this exhibition, you have include paintings and beadwork. Can you tell us about the beadwork’s relationship with the photographs?

ZM: In this exhibition, the different mediums that are included… the photographs, and some beadworks, and also some paintings… I guess that if you try to express yourself, you try with your whole being, with your whole self, with all that is there to be just to make (a) statement (because you are) desperate to heard.

And you need people to get a grip and to listen to what you have to say, and then I thought that photographs were not enough. I needed to come with like paintings which is my new sensations. I’m loving it because it takes longer than photographs that we take, and it’s exciting. It’s a healing method on its own, the whole process of painting. And also, it’s still the same–self-portraiture is the key. And with beading, it has to do with the beat of my heart, like a heartbeat and which also takes longer than before.

I love beads. They form part of who we are as Africans and it has been done for ages. It dates back to more than centuries (ago) and now we have a new way in which we bead and why we do it and why it’s important. It forms part of traditional, creations that (have) been forgotten or remembered by those who love it, but other people really don’t do it. I like it so much. And also, it’s a personal matter which goes back to all the aesthetics that attaches the soul to the meaning and being. It has a lot to do with inner feelings as well, so I brought them.

I needed people to know that a person is more than just one thing. You are many things. And until you confirm that you are that one because it’s just like one body, but then how you think and how you see yourself and how you think and how you connect with the universe comes in so many forms. It’s not just like one spirit; there’s a whole lot that is attached to it.

So hence I thought that I’m still saying the same thing and I keep on saying respect that black excellence black, black expert or expertise. And what we are capable of doing cannot only be defined by those who have certain positions or (who) decide what should be in or what’s not.

So I’ve learned along my travels that’s there’s so much into that–so limitations they’ll never help one to reach anywhere, but if you tackle things… if you generalize, that’s better because maybe somebody might be looking for something that is not present until it is presented then it creates a different form of imbalance in a way. So, this will be seen because we produce it and then there’ll be a lot of paintings. I have my target number for 2021, which is like 100 paintings, but my flow is less on photography these days because I’m excited by paintings.

What does it mean really? It’s about capabilities and abilities that we would possess. What do they mean, really? These beads are more about abilities and humanity at once. And also speaking on distributions in terms of their work and how this work connects so many people, how it gets to the at world… it depends. It speaks on the need of connecting all the creatives, and also speaking (with) and learning from each other and without judging people or without any judgments.

Ndlunkulu, 2021 Beads glued on plywood Work size: 77 x 59.5 cm

Mohone I, 2021 Acrylic on canvas, Artwork Size: 152.4 x 122 cm