With the series Somnyama Ngonyama, I have decided to turn the camera on myself. In contrast to my life-long project of documenting members of my black LGBTI community in South Africa and beyond, one in which I normally have the privilege of witnessing participants’ presentation of themselves according to their own self-image, with this new work I have created portraits in which I am both participant and image-maker.
Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’) is an unflinchingly personal approach I have taken as a visual activist to confronting the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation through portraiture. The entire series also relates to the concept of MaID (‘My Identity’) or, read differently, ‘maid’, the quotidian and demeaning name given to all subservient black women in South Africa.
Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, I have portrayed myself in highly stylised fashion using the performative and expressive language of theatre. The black face and its details become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure.
The visual variety depicted in the series references the histories of black and white fashion photography and of black and white portraiture. Each and every photo captured in this series is a commentary on a specific event in South Africa’s political history, from the advent of the mining industry, to the fame or infamy of the ‘Black Madonna’, to the recent massacre of miners at Marikana; from family to society and back again.
By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, 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. As Audre Lorde so eloquently put it in her poem, ‘A Litany for Survival’:
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
— Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems
One of the realities that I face as a South African visual activist is being forced to make a living outside this country. For a project to be well executed I have to live on the road where most of the work in this series was produced – dashing from New York to Florence to Nottingham, then to Oslo and Liverpool, back home for a week in Johannesburg, and then off to Ann Arbor, Detroit and New York – as was the case over the past three months. This shuttling around sometimes make me feel disoriented, disconnected and almost homeless. The culturally dominant images of black women start to infiltrate my soul and function as a constant reminder that such images still inform how black women are perceived here and now. One way that I deal with this exoticised self/other is to exorcise those images through my photography.
These self-portraits have been captured in different continents: America, Africa and Europe; in the cities of Amsterdam, Charlottesville, Oslo, Umbria, Syracuse, New York, Malmo, Gothenburg, Johannesburg, Paris, Durban, London, Mayotte, Florence and Gaborone. My aim is to mark memories and connections I made with those places and through my interactions with people there. I created materials and used found objects that expressed my moods. All the materials utilised in the portraits have their own primary functions. I focused on senses such as hands touching and eyes penetrating (unsettling eye contact) while producing the work.
In Somnyama Ngonyama, I have embarked on a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of the selfie, self-representation and self-expression. I have investigated how photographers can question and deal with the body as material or mix it with objects to further aestheticise black personhood. My abiding concern is, can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in society and the position/s that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter?