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by Nomusa Makhubu

Performing Blackface: Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama

In 2014 the activist photographer Zanele Muholi embarked on a photographic series titled Somnyama Ngonyama which is translated: “Hail, the Dark Lioness.” Compared to their[1] previous work documenting black LGBTIQ+ communities in South Africa, this series is distinct in that it is characteristically high-contrast close-up portraits of Muholi utilising various objects (pot scourers, clothes pegs, plastic pipes, chopsticks, ropes, etc.) as accessories. The most recognisable characteristic is the darkened skin, contrasted by lightened eyes and lips. Usually printed in a large-scale format and as wallpaper, the Somnyama Ngonyama series is equivocal. On one hand it is presented as an affirmation of black identity, while on the other it is strikingly evocative of blackface minstrelsy. Laboured with conflicting messages, the series presents a double bind.              

Much effort has gone into shaking off perceptions associating these photographs with blackface. Firstly, Muholi has continually emphasised that unlike the racist practice of blackface minstrelsy, their face in this work is not darkened using cork, shoe polish or makeup as would minstrel performers, but that it is digitally darkened using postproduction software such as Photoshop[2]. As a practice that emerged in nineteenth century America, minstrelsy was performed by white entertainers who darkened their skin, lightened or exaggerated their lips to mock black people.

Secondly, in their artist’s statement Muholi explains: “by exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.” This statement operates as a mode of politicising the work so that it seems to be about taking “blackness” back from the minstrel performers. But one could ask: what kind of blackness is being reclaimed here? Is it the kind of blackness that needs to be reclaimed? This colourist view seems reductionist and dwells on assumed singularity of the “performance” of blackness.

In the third instance, there is the view that darkening in this work is “an aesthetic of blackness” and not blackface per se. Citing Hlonipha Mokoena, Mark Gevisser (2018) points out that “the images flirt dangerously with racist iconography” but because “Muholi has chosen the darkest dark” they “demand that we see the beauty in it, as well as the pain.” The blackface aesthetic, it is argued, “might lead to it being viewed only as irony or parody when in fact its message is deadly serious” (Gevisser 2018). The photographs return to the order of performance in which this tight linking of notions such as beauty and pain are a reminder of the spectator. Who is imagined as the viewer? Whose gaze is being titillated? The performance might not be by the privileged other, as in classic minstrelsy, but has the circumscribed audience changed?  Fusing “race” into surface aesthetics, it is mainly the pigmentation or darkening of the images rather than what is performed that signifies blackness. Given that the blackface motif is ineludible in this work, how are we to understand the discomfort it inevitably creates?

Muholi’s focus on race coincides with recent anti-racism decolonial uprisings in local higher education institutions such as the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall movements founded by students as well as similar civil society movements. It is also foregrounded by the deepening racial fault lines globally: the rise of Black Lives Matter across central America, the ongoing protests in the Netherlands against the blackface tradition of the Feast of St. Nicholas where participants dress up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the Moorish companion of St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. In South Africa, haunted by the realities of racial segregation, the socio-economic reinforcement of race has remained the fundamental cause of social unrest and breakdown. South Africa is continually re-racialised, revealing the failures of the reconciliation project. It is within this milieu, that Muholi’s large scale darkened photographs are staged.

One must, therefore, pause and reflect on the representation of race as it intersects[3] with sexuality, gender and class in these works. Muholi’s early work documented black lesbians who live in black townships. Constructed through apartheid policies of separate development, townships were built on the margins, far from economic hubs, to house black labourers who worked in white areas. Townships are still exclusively black and underserviced. Here, black working class LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Intersex and Queer) communities face the worst injustices and, unlike the middle class in South Africa, they cannot be protected through private security and health care, etc. The denial of basic rights for the LGBTIQ+ proletariat is coupled with the worst kinds of scapegoating and hate crime. Muholi continues the fight for gay and lesbian rights. As co-founder of the Forum and Empowerment of Women (FEW) and Inkanyiso, she has been active in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex (LGBTI) organisations (Neidhart 2006: 95). She registered the organization Inkanyiso in 2006.

Through collective work, the members of Inkanyiso document the ‘unseen’ aspects of black lesbian lives in townships. By doing so, they create an archive that addresses the absence of these stories in historical narratives. They also reveal the resilience to the injustices faced by black lesbians as well as transmen and women. Muholi equips young people (high school students) with cameras and photography skills so that they can see their worlds differently. For Muholi, it is important “to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond[4].” This archive is a significant part of queer activism.

The Somnyama Ngonyama series, however, calls for frank engagement with the multiple dimensions of race in the artistic practice of self-representation and activism. In thinking about race and performance, I will also discuss Ntando Cele’s Black Off performances, in which she plays Bianca White, a middle-class South African white woman. Here I consider the chasm between the consumption of race as image or the minstrelisation of racial politics and the labour of activism. To do this, I focus on three themes; namely, language, labour and hierarchies of racial value.

Fig. 1: Zanele Muholi, Save me

Fig. 2: Zanele Muholi, Blown

Fig. 3: Zanele Muholi, Fifiyela

Language: Ventriloquism and the Black body

In the photographs Save Me (Fig.1), Blown (Fig. 2), and Fifiyela (Fig. 3) Muholi’s mouth is concealed, closed or covered. Rising out of a pile of blown-up white rubber gloves, Muholi raises their arm in a hand-puppet gesture in Save Me (2015) and has their white-gloved hand covering their mouth in Blown (2015). Their eyes are shut. Their mouth is closed.

Language is more than what is spoken. Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama series forms part of a particular photographic and artistic visual language. It is important therefore to reflect on language, in the sense of the discourse it produces and the Anglocentrism that thrusts it into a confounding discourse in the process of translation (for example, isiZulu terms denoting blackness into English). There is also the need to consider performative language in Muholi’s photographs.

English hegemony is, for most former colonial second-language speakers, a silencing apparatus. Generally, in South Africa, those who cannot speak it, are considered illiterate and, in effect, excluded from skilled work and relegated to cheap unskilled labour. This exclusion in South Africa contributes to the trivialisation and silencing of Nguni languages. It also becomes the language of rebelling against its own colonial history. Reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s (1984: 112) question: “what does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Lorde’s (1984: 112) popular argument that the master’s tools “may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change,” is important in exploring what gets lost in the process of translating “blackness” into Anglocentric discourses.

Muholi oscillates between the insistence on isiZulu as the language in which they practise and creating a set of meanings for Anglocentric spaces. The title “Somnyama Ngonyama” which is “the dark one” and “the lion” is translated by Muholi as “Hail, the Dark Lioness.” Somnyama and mnyamane are among the words used by black children to mock those with a darker complexion – a form of self-denigration that emerges from the violent racist language used by others against black people.  Muholi attests to have fallen victim to this denigration and points out that to call someone somnyama was not only to say that they are too dark but to declare that they are ugly because of the darkness (Wortham 2015).

Ngonyama could be used to refer to a lion or a monarch. It is curious that Muholi chose to give gender to the word lion as “lioness”, given that Muholi’s oeuvre critiques gender. The phrase Somnyama Ngonyama does not contain the word “Hail” but implies it in the sense of the double meaning in the word ngonyama. Translating the phrase to “Hail, the Dark Lioness” gives the impression that there is a shift in register and in the meaning of dark (which transforms from denigration to pride). In the process of translation, however, is a flattening of meaning and a new imperious superficiality the phrase gains in its English form.

In these translations, there seems to be a conflation of darkness and blackness since the word “mnyama” seems to denote both. However, if blackness here is not just the colour black but represented as a racial, cultural and political identity, then the appropriate word might be “nsundu” or “abansundu”; alternatively, “ntu” or “abantu” as the demonyms for black people. Although racism and colourism are interrelated, black identities are not reducible to pigmentation. In looking at Somnyama Ngonyama one is compelled to search beyond the representation of race through the emphasis of skin darkening to find something complex in the language of performing the self.

The work generates a discourse that skirts around the issue of race and performance and fixates on skin colour. Jenna Wortham published an intimate article in the New York Times describing an engagement with Muholi in Syracuse. Wortham (2015) describes Muholi as such:

She’s handsome, blessed with an abundance of melanin that keeps her looking much younger than her 43 years. She carries herself with the casual swagger of an off-season soccer player and dresses the part, favoring cuffed jeans, popped collars and a black trilby hat. In her self-portraits, however, she likes to alter the contrast so that it darkens her complexion into an oil­slick black, sharpening her soft edges and transforming her charisma into ferocity.

The insistence on the surface (the melanin, complexion, etc.) is promptly transposed into racialised notions of beauty. Wortham states: “part of the reason [Muholi] drastically darkens her skin tone in the photographs” is to “undo the damage of growing up in a society that drew its strength from demonizing blackness.” This is “her most deliberate declaration that she is black and that she is beautiful.” Wortham (2015) cites Muholi who explains that this project “was a way ‘to make something beautiful that is not usually perceived as such… To talk about the aesthetic of blackness and the presence of ‘black’ in spaces that were mainly white.” In a sense, the work is defined as translation of perceptions on what is to be perceived as “ugly” and “beautiful” in relation to race. It is also presented as a translation of blackness in white spaces. This point is provocative in that it not only implies a transgression of still racialised spaces but it also suggests a staging of blackness. This may be interpreted through the visual and performative language, akin to fashion photography, that is used in the photographs.

The body in Somnyama Ngonyama presents semantic traffic that makes it indecipherable since the oppressive language of identity categories obfuscates meaning. To be confronted with the surface of a body, is to be hurled into a de-historicising language. This can be also read in light of Hortense Spillers’ interrogation of the relation between the body, language and the ownership of black bodies. Spillers (1987: 69) describes the African and European encounter as a “descent into the loss of communicative force” for the African because “the captivating party does not only earn the right to dispose of the captive body as it sees fit, but gains, consequently, the right to name it.” In naming a person ‘kaffir’, ‘queer’, ‘black’, ‘woman’, ‘dark-skinned', language is used to internalise concepts of inferiority and superiority. In the series generally, the words “black”, “dark” and “lioness” become hollowed out and echo conflicting ideas, which accentuate the violence of language.

Spillers argues that the socio-political order of the New World “represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile” (Spillers 1987: 67).  Under these conditions, she states, the “theft of the body—a wilful and violent severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire… we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.” Further, “externally imposed meanings and uses of the body are interrupted by the interlocking of or a “point of convergence” at which “biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join” (Spillers 1987:67). The body “reduced to a thing” returns not as text but as image.

Save Me (2015) was made in the early stages of Somnyama Ngonyama and has not been publicly exhibited. However, it is a powerful image that in some ways contextualises the hollowing out of language in the publicly exhibited works in the series. The hand puppet gesture in this image suggests a “speaking for” and “speaking over” or a dislocation of the speaking subject. The title, Save Me, not only suggests deliverance and emancipation but also negation and vulnerability. It is the silencing and the blinding that conveys the circumstance of black subjectivity.

This work draws attention to a kind of ventriloquism through which the concerns of black people, women, queer, poor people are voiced by those who, not bound by these terms, “speak for” the other, often in a language that is not their own. Photography, after all, was instrumental in colonisation as long as the white interlocutor could ‘speak over’ the mute photograph which was mobilised as “evidence” of the backwardness of the unspeaking primitive (Hartman, Silvester and Hayes 1998). The translation of these works for consumption in white spaces, suggests an “invisible hand”, as it were, where the works represent the forces of the market as opposed to black experience. Photography is described by Allan Sekula (1986: 6) as a “silence that silences” in which “oral texts” yield to a “mute testimony.” The camera captures aspects of the human condition that words fail to describe.

These photographs delve into the complexity, and perhaps a cul-de-sac, of relational identity where blackness in terms of whiteness and femininity in terms of masculinity, or the seeming inevitability of the oppressive counterparts are reproduced through modern imperialisms.

Performing race and relational identity

Fig. 4: Zanele Muholi, Still Mourning

Fig. 5: Zanele Muholi, Phaphama, at Cassilhaus, North Carolina, 2016

In Still Mourning (Fig. 4), also part of the work made in the early stages of the series that was not publicly shown, Muholi’s explicit parody of blackface is disarming. In this photograph, Muholi poses in a typical ‘coon’ gesture with both hands raised. Through whitened lips, whitened eyes and whitened hands, Muholi’s performance evokes American blackface minstrelsy which created derogatory stereotypes such as Sambo, Jim Crow, Pickaninny and Mammy. Popularised by Thomas Rice, blackface minstrelsy portrayed black people as inarticulate and stupid, ludicrous and servile. Racist stereotypes can be seen in other works in the series such as Phaphama, at Cassilhaus, North Carolina, 2016 (Fig. 5) in which Muholi wears round dishwashing pads on their head and a bow tie such that the outline mimics Sambo woolly hair, or Khwezi, Chicago, 2016 (Fig. 6) where the plaited hair resembles the Pickaninny nappy hair stereotype, or Thulile I, Delaware, 2016 (Fig. 7) where Muholi carries a golliwog.

Muholi’s Still Mourning also hints at the Kaapse Klopse – an annual Cape minstrel festival that is part of Cape “coloured” identity[5]. It is known as “Die Tweede Nuwe Jaar,” marking the 2nd of January as the day when slaves (brought from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bengal and Central Africa) could take a day off. Klopse appropriates American blackface performance mocking African Americans which was encountered when American performers visited the Cape in the mid-1850s. Minstrelsy in Cape Town is still practiced as an important part of Cape heritage and a cultural event consolidating “coloured” identity. It is controversial because, for the educated elite, it is perceived as a perpetuation of demeaning racial stereotypes for the entertainment of mostly white tourists and “an unnecessary reminder of the atrocities suffered in the Cape” (Bardien 2020). It is reminiscent of the incorporation of slaves by the Dutch in the celebration of Twelfth Night, a festival in the Netherlands. Towards the end of slavery, Cape minstrelsy was used as satire and came to symbolise a sense of freedom (Bardien 2020).

Nadia Davids (2013:19) argues that “Blackface in the Cape is mobilized not to invoke racist caricature but rather as a mask that promises freedom, or at least freedom by imagined affiliation.” In a similar vein, Muholi’s work equivocates between being a reminder of racial stereotype and being satirical. Though not always as explicit as in Still Mourning, racial stereotypes are no doubt fundamental in the Somnyama Ngonyama series. The question that arises is: how are they to be interpreted when performed in Muholi’s photographs?

Muholi’s oeuvre (Faces and Phases) is known for its documentary representation and not necessarily as performance, at least not in the strictly artistic sense. The Somnyama Ngonyama series radically shifts that register and Muholi explicitly performs different people in different parts of the world. For each of the portraits, Muholi performs a different persona that is given a name and location in each title. The use of props enhances the performance and staged nature of the portrait. In their artist’s statement, Muholi explains: “experimenting with different characters and archetypes, I have portrayed myself in highly stylised fashion using the performative and expressive language of theatre.” Muholi then says: “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.”

In the photographs themselves, Muholi sits for a portrait. The objects used in the portraits then become the basis of a “performance,” since without these objects the photographs would be a replication of the same portrait of Muholi with darkened skin and lightened lips and eyes. Perhaps the replication, as part of staged production, is in itself a performance. For Muholi, the body is the “material” that can be “mixed” with objects “to further aestheticise black personhood.” This implies that the performance of black personhood relies on the blackface aesthetics and the objects. One becomes aware of the pot scourers, washing sponges, boxes, clothes hangers, a bowling bag, clothes pegs, chopsticks, safety pins, sunglasses, inner rubber tube, gas masks, scissors, shoes and other objects used as hats or headwear. The ambivalence lies in the interpolation of the black body as object and the more complex notion of black personhood or “being black” and not “mimicking” it. Considering this then, one could deduce that it is not blackness that is being performed by Muholi but rather racialism becomes theatricalised in the politics of the production of this work.

Fig. 6: Zanele Muholi, Thulile I, Dela ware, 2016

Fig. 7: Zanele Muholi, Khwezi, Chicago, 2016

Writing about the experience of Muholi’s production process, for example, Wortham (2015) defines it as an “elaborate choreography.” In the article, she recounts the experience.

[Muholi] had invited me over in the early afternoon to watch her process, but she wasn’t ready to begin until late at night. It was as if she kept finding reasons not to take her photo. […] She finally asked her assistant, Lerato Dumse, a quiet woman with a shaved head, to help her start setting up around 10 p.m. It was late evening when Muholi disappeared into the bathroom […]. The sound of water and the sweet smell of soap drifted into the living room. Minutes later, she emerged, cargo shorts slung low around her hips, the band of her boxers visible. A pretty blue-and-­white cotton fabric called a khanga was loosely tied around her chest like a cape. Her only tattoo, an outline of the entire female reproductive system, was visible on the still-damp skin of her left shoulder. Muholi and Dumse spent the next hour fiddling with the lighting and taking test shots, conversing in Zulu as they peered and frowned at the readouts on the digital camera.

The late-­summer humidity kept causing a dewy shine to sprout above Muholi’s brow, and she rummaged around in the kitchen for something to soften the glare it produced. She found some flour and rubbed it in circles on her forehead. Then she propped a pink plastic mirror onto a counter and stared into it with intense concentration, first creating a tight collar around her neck with the tape and then making four long spokes down her body, carving it into sections. […] The process dragged on. Muholi reapplied tape, adjusted lighting, played African gospel songs on her laptop. This elaborate choreography seemed to be a kind of prolonged foreplay, a delaying of the inevitable moment when she would step in front of the camera and stare into its lens. […] The lengthy preparation bordered on playful, but Muholi insists that it is not pleasurable, but necessary.

It was almost midnight by the time Muholi was ready to take her photograph for the day. She eyed a wire fruit basket on the counter nearby and placed it on her head. It could have read as silly, but on her, the effect was Afrofuturistic, even debonair. As she lifted her face to the camera, her visage melted into something pleading and vulnerable. I was perched behind Dumse, who was shooting the photo, and could see Muholi’s eyes, full of a searching, woeful expression. It was hard to look into them directly.

The article defines the process building up to the making of the photograph as a “choreographed” performance but also captures a second performance in front of the camera, which transforms Muholi’s “charisma and ferocity” into a “pleading and vulnerable” visage and “a searching [and] woeful expression.” These conflicting messages are embedded in the work, equivocally advocatory and yet divulging vulnerability.

This then brings us to the need to understand how, in the work, Muholi deals with subjecthood and objecthood. The series, it can be argued, is a Fanonian paradox. Frantz Fanon (1967: 8, 172) defined the colonial experience as one that “seal[s]” the black person in “a crushing objecthood” and into “thingness.” He states: “I arrived in the world, anxious to make sense of things […] and here I discovered myself an object amongst other objects. Imprisoned in this overwhelming subjectivity, I implored others” (cited in Gordon 2015: 49). He defined this existential complex, as a loss of subjectivity or the “zone of nonbeing.” Muholi often emphasises, however, that these photographs, due to the exaggerated darkness of the skin tone, are a reclamation of blackness. “The black face and its details” Muholi argues, “become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure.” The focus on skin tone is poetically captured by Fanon when he says:

I am overdetermined from the exterior. I am not the slave of the “idea” that others have of me but of my appearance. I move slowly in the world, accustomed to no longer pretending to appear […] Already the white eyes, the sole truth, dissect me. I am fixed. Having prepared their microtome, they objectively cut away pieces of my reality (Fanon 1967: 93).

The “aestheticization” of blackness locks desire within the consumption of the black body as material and as object, especially within the mise-en-scene of the commercial artworld.

Citing Fanon, Pramod Nayar (2013: 74) notes the spatial terms in which the condition of blackness is defined as “a claustrophobic condition of being trapped by his skin colour” and argues that “the skin is thus a trap, a confined space from which there is no escape.” What is striking about Muholi’s work is the sense of confinement. For example, in MaID VII, Philadelphia, 2018 (Fig. 8), Muholi peeks behind bars as they seem to disappear behind a prison door. In most photographs in the series, the spaces are neutral. They could represent any place, or they could symbolise non-place. Some of them are staged in front of blank backdrops, others behind various indistinguishable backdrops. Yet, the titles emphasise a sense of place through the different locations of places that Muholi has visited or has worked in. Place names perform a recovery of space, which is absent in the photographs. While skin is a trap, a prison of sorts, in Muholi’s work, it seems as though the place names seek to create a re-assurance of “being in the world.” The place names are an existential gesture.

Fig. 8: Zanele Muholi, MaID VII, Philadelphia, 2018

In Muholi’s work, this seem to be an assertion that “I am” and “I exist in the world” against the void that is represented in the photographs. However, it is also defined by Muholi as alienating and dislocating. In explaining the use of place names in this work, Muholi says: “[t]his shuttling around sometimes make [sic] me feel disoriented, disconnected and almost homeless.” They lament having to “continually justify [their] presence.” Given that locatedness is central in reading how blackness is performed as object in relation to space, the notion of black personhood in the work becomes even more complicated. Muholi’s representation of blackness then becomes relational; in other words, dependant on its relationship to whiteness and to place.

Muholi raises the question of space in relation to where the work is shown. If the work, emphasising blackface, is shown in white spaces, Muholi was asked by Mary Wang (2017) in Vogue, does it not perpetuate and reinforce racist stereotypes? Muholi responded by saying that “How we challenge whiteness [sic], if we’re scared to access the spaces given to us? […] We can talk about white walls, but there are no black walls, and the black walls don’t have resources. So if there’s a space that is open to me, I give it to all of us” (referring to the team Muholi travels with). The entanglement with “white spaces” that Muholi defines also suggests that blackface in the images, rather that it being a performance of black personhood, appears to be a theatrical reflection of whiteness. It is difficult to discern the meanings Muholi attributes to whiteness, but it consistently presents identity as relational and suggests blackface and “aesthetics of blackness” as a foundation of whiteness.  


Fig. 9: Zanele Muholi, MaID I, Syracuse, 2015

In thinking about the performance of race, I was drawn to Ntando Cele’s whiteface performance in which she lampoons a white South African middle-class English woman, Bianca White – a self-involved, wealthy ‘philanthropist’. In the performance Black Notice Ntando Cele wears whitening make-up, mimicking South African white accents. The character Bianca White is ignorant and unaware of her own racism. She sees herself as a liberal white saviour who is “helping” young black people to find themselves through the non-profit organisation she founded, RIAC (Raise Individual African Children). During the performance she presents a slideshow of “these lovely young people” but shows colonial photographs, including a photograph of Cele without makeup. White makes racist jokes such as “Why don’t shark[s] eat blacks? Because they think blacks are whale shit.” She also echoes typical racist statements such as “in fact I like blacks. I used to have a lot of black friends when I was growing up until my daddy sold them all and bought me a dog.” Curiously, White always boasts that she is “a quarter Zulu,” “a fifth Khoikhoi,” “a third generation Afrikaans meisie” and declares “I am almost black” and struggles to pronounce the “click” sound. As she addresses the audience as “fellow white people,” she reminds them that “blacks are not the only ones who live in Africa, we whites are also African.” The audience generally laughs at White’s racist remarks. In this satire, however, White has episodes of paroxysm, which makes her more tragic than laughable.

Bianca White is borne out of Cele’s frustration with the fact that blackface in the Netherlands, where she is based, is still prevalent and yet there is no equivalent whiteface. Cele also conceptualised Vera Black, a black woman who performs punk rock and sexualised but transgressive dances for a mostly white audience. During the performance Black screams: “Thank you I don’t need your help, thank you I’m fucked up by myself.” In an interview with Kadiatou Diallo, Cele says that Vera Black is a difficult character because she comes across as an “angry black woman” and so the audience is generally tone deaf to her message[6]. Cele mentions that Vera Black makes her audience angry, considering her “not funny.”

The performance of racial stereotypes negotiates sentiments of contempt, hostility, anger and shame. This negotiation in Muholi’s work is subdued perhaps because the satire is difficult to locate in the series as whole. The work operates on the surface, drawing attention to skin colour and to aesthetics. Blackness as a composite concept brings together a flux of identities that seem to be suspended in Somnayama Ngonyama into a fixed set of typecasts.


Race and labour: hands as metaphor

Often symbolising subservience and subjugation, the hands are a provocative element in the series. In Blown, Save Me and Still Mourning – all works that were not shown publicly – hands are in white gloves or white paint. In Somnyama Ngonyama the diptych titled MaID I, Syracuse, 2015 (Fig. 9), Muholi poses, wearing white latex gloves, as a body builder in one photograph and strangles herself in another. White gloves, like the whitened mouth and eyes, are part of blackface costuming. White gloves in blackface performance caricature black obsequious servitude. In the current series, Phila I, Parktown, 2016 (Fig. 10) depicts Muholi covered in black inflated latex gloves. These gloves connote protection and cleaning. These are three levels of reading Muholi’s use of gloves and emphasis on the hands: labour and class, contamination and disease, dirt and cleanliness.

In the photographic essay, Muholi has titled a few images MaID, which refers to “ma identity” and to domestic work (maid). Although hands are not always visible in the whole series, the reference to domestic work as umsebenzi wezandla (manual [hand] labour) has been there even in Muholi’s early work. In 2008 Muholi created a series titled Massah and Mina(h) (or Master and Me) to commemorate her mother who was a domestic worker. Minah is typical name of a domestic worker in South Africa but in Zulu, the word “mina” also means “me”. In this work, Muholi is seen framed between the legs of a white woman kneeling and scrubbing the floor. Dressed as a domestic worker she plays the role of a servant but, given the intimacy portrayed in the photographs, she is also a lover. In Somnyama Ngonyama there is a set of works titled Bester after Muholi’s mother, where she uses domestic objects such as clothes pegs, washing sponges and other cleaning material. Other Bester works vary in terms of the objects used.

In South Africa, cleaning and sanitation is black work. A majority of middle class South African households employ black domestic workers. Most white South African children grow up in the presence of a black nanny. A typical blackface stereotype in South Africa is therefore the black domestic worker, as witnessed in comedian Leon Shuster’s dressing up as the domestic worker, “Mama Jack” or the various incidents where white students dress up in blackface as black domestic workers with cushions tucked in to emphasise buttocks[7]. The hands, as do thick lips and big buttocks, symbolise the denigration and dismemberment of the black body, which, in popular culture is not represented as whole but in synecdochic parts. The art historian Amelia Jones’ (2002: x) suggests that “the self-portrait photograph, then becomes a kind of technology of embodiment, and yet one that paradoxically points to our tenuousness and incoherence as living, embodied subjects.”

Furthermore, references to the black labouring body are evident in Muholi’s use of a pile of gloves that are reminiscent of the severing of hands in the Congo Free State for the extraction of rubber under King Leopold’s reign. Peter Forbath (1978: 105) describes “baskets of severed hands” that were set down at the feet of European post commanders” had become “a symbol of the Congo Free State.” He adds that the severed hands of Congolese who did not fulfil labour quotas had become “an end in itself” or “a sort of currency” such that the Force Publique soldiers went out to “harvest hands instead of rubber” since they were “paid on the basis of how many hands they had collected.” Muholi’s use of rubber gloves is a metaphor for the disfiguration of the black body and the ways in which labour value is constructed through its objectification.

These gloves also connote the boundary between purity and impurity, dirt and cleanliness. There is a Zulu proverb that states: izandla ziyagezana, meaning that people are interdependent (one hand depends on the other hand for its cleanliness). Latex gloves are used to keep hands clean or from contamination and disease. The glove as a layer over skin, which hides or protects, connotes the vulnerability of the human body and the precarious relations between people which are perpetually defined by boundaries and barriers. The concept of dirt threatens structures of bourgeois sensibility and serves as a reminder about which hands do the cleaning (yisiphi isandla esigeza esinye) and which remain with the stains.

The proletariat is often thought to be dirty as is the township or ‘informal settlement’ and seen to be ‘out of place’ when in bourgeois spaces. Yet, these are people employed to work in sanitation, with sewage, cleaning suburban and CBD streets and cleaning suburban houses. The rubber glove in Muholi’s photographs alludes to the ways in which the conceptualisation of dirt and cleanliness or contamination and dis-ease has bearings on social relations and hierarchies based on race and gender. These photographs point to layers of society where hierarchies cannot be sustained and where identities are illusive or irresolute.

Fig. 10: Zanele Muholi, Phila I, Parktown, 2015

Fig. 11: Zanele Muholi, Massa and Minah 2, 2008



Just reading that a person can be black and still perform in blackface, making fun of black people for a living, and at the same time be a genius and be an incredible entertainer and at the same time be extremely conflicted and feel like – just feel terrible for doing that, essentially, which is what Bert Williams felt, from what I gather, from what I read – all of that just made – was so incredible to me. (Salvant 2015)

What feeling does the work provoke? I end on the question of “feeling” not as a conclusion to the ongoing reflection on Somnyama Ngonyama but as way to address the sense of discomfort created by the work as a way of understanding its complex and conflicted nature. It seems necessary to move a step beyond the objective analysis of the work’s aesthetics and to be immersed in the subjective moment. Being black, do I see blackness in these images? Is there something familiar or something estranging?

Given that this photographic essay deploys a strategic visual language that recuperates familiar but disconcerting iconography of blackface to show the continuation of racial prejudice, does it advocate for the misrepresentation of black women? The performance of blackface by black performers is seen as a way of adopting that which is demeaning in order to emancipate oneself from it. This process of recuperation and translation implies that something in what is adopted changes. In other words, it implies that blackface is radically different when performed by black performers than when performed by white performers. But what makes it emancipatory? Is it the possibility that when white audiences see these images, they might feel guilt or complicity? What happens if that feeling never emerges? What happens if “black aesthetics” and the resistance it purports, in this instance, is pleasurable to consume because the aesthetics are so beautiful, playful and skin-deep?

In this reflection, I have considered the transition or translation of “blackness” into Anglo-centric spaces. It is not only that much gets lost in translation but that much gets invented that is particularly interesting. Can black personhood be translated and constructed from blackface tropes? If not, then surely something else gets produced. Are the images in Somnyama Ngonyama aimed at imagining black life differently, seeing it differently, and thereby freeing it from its entanglement in the master-slave/subjecthood-objecthood relationship upon which the relational identities of blackness and whiteness are founded? The performance, I argued, divulges more about the politics of production (and consumption) than the performance of blackness. Blackness as Muholi often opines is the interminable labour of becoming. It is the emotional labour of encountering and undoing time and time again the work of racism. And in undoing the work of racism we find ourselves in its machinations. Left with more questions than answers, I search and yearn for the emancipatory aesthetic in these images.

Nomusa Makhubu (PhD, Rhodes University) is associate professor of art history at the University of Cape Town and an artist. She is the recipient of the ABSA L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award (2006), the Prix du Studio National des Arts Contemporain, Le Fresnoy (2014) and the First Runner Up in the Department of Science and Technology (DST) Women in Science Awards (2017). Makhubu was a fellow of the American Council of Learned Socie­ties and an African Studies Association (ASA) Pres­idential Fellow in 2016. In 2017, she was a Man­dela-Mellon fellow at the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Studies, Harvard University. Makhubu is a member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) and the deputy chairperson of Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI). In 2015, she co-edited a Third Text Special Issue: ‘The Art of Change’ (2013) and co-curated with Nkule Mabaso the international exhibition, Fantastic. Her research interests include African popular culture and socially-engaged art.



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[1] Zanele Muholi’s preferred gender pronoun is “their”. In this paper, “their” is used except in quotes where authors refer to Muholi as “she, her”, which is the gender pronoun that Muholi previously used.

[2] All statements by Muholi are taken from the Stevenson website except where otherwise indicated, accessed 30/04/2020, https://www.stevenson.info/exhibition/1440

[3] I am drawing on Patricia Hill-Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality which points to the complexity of multiple oppressions. Crenshaw (1991) defined this as structural vulnerability of womxn of colour.

[4] https://www.amherst.edu/academiclife/departments/art/a-calendar/node/617213 accessed 06/05/2020

[5] So-called Cape coloureds are descendants of the pastoralist Khoe, San and Xhosa. The arrival of English and Dutch settlers, French Huguenots in the 17th century, slaves who were imported from Madagascar, West and East Africa, India, Indonesia, as well as German immigrants in the 18th century has generated an intricate socio-political history.

[6] http://www.artistsonafrica.net/podcasts/ntando-cele-on-whiteness-as-theory/ accessed 06/05/2020.

[7] A recent case involves students at the University of Pretoria. accessed 20.05.2015.



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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions