The first image you’ll see, says CVA director Cecily Cullen, is "Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg." It's a "ten-foot-long, six-foot-tall image of the artist lying nude on the floor. At first glance, Muholi seems to be lying among luxurious pillows in a newspaper library. Then you see that it’s really a thin blanket with blown-up plastic bags.”
The startling image is made even more dramatic, Cullen adds, by the deliberately enhanced blackness of the artist’s skin set against sharp, high-contrast black-and-white textures and props.
Mulholi, who’s been turning the camera on fellow artists in South Africa’s Black lesbian and trans communities for years, is easy to put in a box as a standard self-portraitist, but the artist eschews that label, and so does the new work itself. “Their preferred declarative is ‘visual activist,’ as opposed to ‘artist’ or ‘photographer,’ Cullen notes. By their own admission, Mulholi is striving, fists out and ready to fight, to reclaim blackness as it is co-opted by white assumptions.
“By taking on many personas, Muholi is exploring stereotypical roles,” Cullen says. “Sometimes an image looks like tribal portrayal, but instead, if you look close up, you see that a headdress is actually comprised of looped bicycle inner tubes.”
Through the use of common and found materials, Mulholi throws the self-images into a grander arena as a demand for entry by disenfranchised minority groups into the canon of modern art.
“Muholi also focuses a lot on tropes about beauty,” Cullen explains. “Seeing this image of a very dark African person as a beauty object, positioning themself in the realm of beauty, is expansive and also very natural: The wigs and tiaras have a tongue-in-cheek quality. There’s definitely a sense of humor in the work — but unexpected. It takes you by surprise.”
There’s a sense of “vulnerability, power and strength,” adds Cullen, pointing out how Mulholi stares down the violence faced by the queer Black community in South Africa.
“Wigs and hair are important aspects to Black identity,” Cullen adds. “There are several images that work with the idea of hair and the use of crowns, headdresses or tiaras. One uses giant safety pins to form a crown and a draping necklace. Another has chopsticks porcupining out of a big pile of hair. Some refer to stereotypical gender norms, like the use of clothespins in one image, indicating a domestic worker.”
Scissors, power lines and scouring pads are just a few more of the loaded materials used to convey stereotypical confinements.
Cullen describes how, while hanging the show, she and her fascinated staff debated over which image they’d most like to take home: “It’s difficult to choose, because so many take your breath away. Some are wallpaper-sized and confront the viewer in larger-than-life dimensions,” she says. “Several are so striking, like the image on the announcement card, where Muholi has clothespins creating a crown-like form on their head and white paint on their lips and eyes, transforming the subject’s appearance. Some you can tell that it’s the same person, sometimes not.”
Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama/Hail the Dark Lioness runs through March 20 at the Center for Visual Art Metropolitan State University of Denver, 965 Santa Fe Drive. Guests wearing masks are welcome to visit the CVA from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon to five Saturday. No more than twenty people will be allowed in the galleries at one time; additional COVID safety measures are listed in the CVA website’s FAQ. Learn more about the exhibition online.