Zanele Muholi on Visual Activism & Undoing Racism

In my instance, visual activism has a lot to do with two things: connecting the visual and my activism. Which means that every image that I take has a lot to do with politics. In my work, I am pushing a political agenda.

– Zanele Muholi

Taken in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa between 2014 and 2017, each of the 76 self-portraits in the Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) series is distinct and poses critical questions about social injustice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body. South African visual activist Zanele Muholi combines classical portraiture, fashion photography, and ethnographic imagery to establish different archetypes and personae.

Hear from the artist as they describe how household and found objects become culturally loaded props in these self-portraits. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude. Rubber tires, electrical cords, and cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation. Collectively, the portraits evoke the plight of workers: maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities. The artist’s gaze challenges viewers while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms. Don’t miss your chance to see Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness while it’s still in Seattle at SAM through November 3.

SAM Art: An unusual self-portrait

“He comes from the Pacific Northwest: an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes . . . He is shy and self aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination. . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory. . . he has the willful steely quality of a bird-its fierce capacity to survive.”

-Frederick S. Wight, Director of the Art Gallery, University of California at Los Angeles, on meeting Morris Graves, 1963

Morris Graves created this work early in his career, in the same year that he won first prize at the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists. A very private person, the self-portrait was an unusual subject for Graves. However, in 1932 Graves joined a small group of artists that met periodically for painting sessions. The group members would each create a work in response to a shared theme, such as “still life.” Guy Anderson, another member of this group, remembers Graves painting this work as his response to the theme of “self-portrait.”

Self-portrait, 1933, Morris Graves (American, born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein, 85.268, © Morris Graves Foundation, Photo: Paul Macapia. Currently on view in the American Modernism galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.