Zanele Muholi:
Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness

14 July - 28 October 2017

Autograph ABP

London, UK

Free exhibition

In her first solo exhibition in London, South African visual activist Zanele Muholi (b 1972) presents her ongoing self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama.

In more than 60 photographs Muholi uses her body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation in the visual archive.

Taken primarily in Europe, North America and Africa, each portrait asks critical questions about social justice, human rights and contested representations of the black body. Muholi’s psychologically charged portraits are unapologetic in their directness as she explores different archetypes and personae, and offers personal reflections.

Everyday objects are transformed into dramatic and historically loaded props, merging the political with the aesthetic. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude, while alluding to sexual politics, violence and the suffocating prisms of gendered identity. Rubber tyres, safety pins and protective goggles invoke forms of social brutality and exploitation, often commenting on events in South Africa’s history; materials such as plastic draw attention to environmental issues and global waste. Accessories like cowrie shells and beaded fly whisks highlight Western fascinations with clichéd, exoticised representations of African cultures.

Somnyama Ngonyama playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. By increasing the contrast in the dark complexion of her skin, Muholi interrogates complex representations of beauty and desire. Gazing defiantly at the camera, Muholi challenges the viewer’s perceptions while firmly asserting her cultural identity on her own terms: black, female, queer, African.

"I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear." - Zanele Muholi

A majority of the works in the exhibition are from Muholi’s current series Somnyama Ngonyama are taken between 2014 and 2017. The isiZulu title translates into English as: Hail, the Dark Lioness.

'Somnyama Ngonyama presents a compelling and visionary mosaic of identities, an exquisite empire of selves. Inviting us into a multi-layered conversation, each photograph in the series, each visual inscription, each confrontational narrative depicts a self in profound dialogue with countless others: implicitly gendered, culturally complex and historically grounded black bodies.’ Renée Mussai, Exhibition Curator

Directions and opening hours

Autograph ABP
Rivington Place

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Exhibition opening times
Tues, Wed, Fri 11am – 6pm
Thurs 11am – 9pm,
Sat 12 – 6pm
The gallery is closed on Sundays, Mondays and Public Holidays

Visiting information

We look forward to welcoming you to Autograph ABP. Admission to the exhibition is free and unticketed.

Visiting Autograph ABP
We are fully accessible with step free access to all areas of the building. A lift is available to all floors.

Ground Floor
Gallery 1: Somnyama Ngonyama exhibition

Free lockers, ask at information desk for key
Accessible toilets
Baby change facilities
Information desk
Education Studio
Book and print sales

First Floor
Accessible toilets

Second Floor
Gallery 2: Somnyama Ngonyama exhibition

Stuart Hall Library (Iniva). Hours >
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Accessible Parking

If you would like to book an accessible parking bay or discuss your access needs, please contact us at 0207 7491240 or info@rivingtonplace.org before your visit. 

Children and group visits

We are pram friendly, and welcome children to the gallery when accompanied by an adult.

Self-directed groups are welcome to the gallery. If you would like to book a workshop for your school or group, contact ali@autograph-abp.co.uk

More about visiting

Please note that the Zanele Muholi exhibition contains nudity.

You are welcome to take photographs for personal use or social media, tag us @autographabp on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. We do not allow photographs to be taken in the galleries with large SLR cameras.

If you would like to take photographs for commercial or press use, please contact leyla@autograph-abp.co.uk before your visit.

To protect the artworks, please do not bring food or drink into the galleries.

We welcome guide dogs , however cannot allow other dogs into the building.

Exhibition events

Exhibition opening
Thur 13 July, 6:30 - 8:30pm
Free. Read more >

Gallery Talk: ‘Intimacies that Disrupt’ by Hlonipha Mokoena
Fri 14 July, 7pm
£3. Book tickets >

Artist-led Gallery Tour / Talk with Zanele Muholi
Sat 15 July, 3pm
Free. Book tickets >

New portrait commission

Autograph ABP commissioned four new self-portraits by Zanele Muholi for the exhibition to commemorate the struggle for equality, freedom of movement and women’s rights in South Africa and beyond.

The exhibition and new commission highlights the 1956 Women’s March on Pretoria. A pivotal moment in South Africa’s history, thousands of women from different cultural backgrounds united to demonstrate defiantly against repressive Apartheid pass laws, which severely restricted their movements.

A series of three portraits are taken at the Old Fort Prison complex at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, where many women were incarcerated for transgressing South Africa’s pass laws during the Apartheid regime. In the forth work, Muholi is portrayed in Kyoto, Japan, exploring the poetics of identity, transgression and exile in the context of different cultural traditions and locations.

These new works will be exhibited for the first time in Somnyama Ngonyama series at Autograph ABP.

Limited edition prints of three commissioned portraits will be available to purchase, all proceeds support Autograph ABP’s artistic and educational programme as a charity.

About Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi was born in 1972 in Umlazi, Durban, and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. She co-founded the Forum of Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, and in 2009 founded Inkanyiso (www.inkanyiso.org), a forum for queer activist and visual (activit) media.

Muholi studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and in 2009 completed an MFA: Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is an Honorary Professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, and has been the recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award and the Carnegie Fine Prize.

Muholi sees her practice as visual activism to effect social change. Over the past decade, she has become known globally with Faces and Phases, her pioneering portrait photography of South Africa’s LBTQI communities. She was included in the South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) and took part in the São Paolo Biennial (2010), documenta 13, Kassel (2013) and, most recently, Kyotographie: International Photography Festival, Kyoto, Japan (2017).

Selected solo exhibitions include the Brooklyn Museum in New York (2015); Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (2015); FotoFocus Biennial, Cincinnati, USA (2016), Rencontres D’Arles (2016); Wentrup, Berlin, Germany (2017); and a forthcoming retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2017). She has shown her work internationally in institutions such as Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul; Kunsthal Rotterdam, Rotterdam; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin; BOZAR, Brussels; Guggenheim, New York; Tate Liverpool, and Tate Modern, London.

Her photographs are represented in museums and collections, including Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Guggenheim, New York; Margulies Collection, Miami; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Walther Collection New York/Neu-Ulm; and Tate Modern, London. Her latest monograph, Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama: ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’, will be published by Aperture (New York) in spring 2018.  She is represented by Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Curated by

Somnyama Ngonyama is curated by Renée Mussai at Autograph ABP.

Renée Mussai is Curator and Head of Archive at Autograph ABP, London. A photography scholar working with contemporary and historical practices, she curates, publishes and lectures internationally on photography, cultural politics and research-led curatorial practice. She is currently a PhD candidate in Art History at University College London.

Who to follow on social media

For Somnyama Ngonyama, we recommend following:

Follow Zanele Muholi's popular Instagram account

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Supported by

Somnyama Ngonyama is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.

Autograph ABP would like to thank Stevenson Gallery for its support.

The exhibition will tour to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, USA, 13 September – 8 December 2018, and other venues to be confirmed.

Gallery closures

Please note that the exhibition will be closed on the following dates:

Tuesday 25 July
Last public admission at 2pm

As seen in:

  • Zanele Muholi, Hlonipha, Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York
  • Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York