Zanele Muholi as the “dark lioness” greets you from across several rooms of the gallery with an intent stare that calls you toward them. Spread throughout multiple galleries at the Seattle Art Museum, this gaze tracks you from dozens of similarly intent portraits of the artist throughout the exhibition, each one demanding you to meet their gaze.
The portraits are bold black and white set against alternating charcoal black-and-white walls. The gallery lights are dimmer than usual, drawing you closer to the portraits and the adorned versions of Muholi staring back at you from within them.
In the more than 70 self-portraits that make up South African artist and visual activist Muholi’s exhibit, “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness,” the artist reclaims the images of black and brown people who have historically been exoticized and othered in visual media. Here Muholi, whose pronouns are they/them, tells their own story.
In each self-portrait, the artist is creatively adorned in found objects, all of them heavy with meaning in black queer history and today. “Philia, Be Well or Live,” in which the artist wears a dozen inflated latex gloves, recalls multiple ideas at once — medical experiments performed on black men and women throughout history and the domestic-worker jobs that black men and women have been relegated to in places like the U.S. and South Africa. But it also pays homage to Muholi’s mother, who was a domestic worker. And it recalls the daring, bold and creative couture that comes from black, queer communities.
Each portrait contains multitudes — the multiple versions of Muholi themself, histories, celebrations and statements about the beauty and diversity of black people and black bodies.
During the opening week of the exhibit, Seattle Art Museum invited several black, queer artists and performers in Seattle to view the exhibit privately and discuss it among themselves. The Seattle Times brought some of those artists together again to share some of their personal insights and reactions to the art.
I navigate so many spaces that are overtly white, passive aggressive, teeming with microaggressions just being in the city of Seattle. I work in tech. I’m a black, gay person in leadership at a tech company in one of the whitest cities in the country, in one of the whitest industries in the country. … When I walk in here, I feel like, for the first time, somebody’s looking back at me and I’m looking back at them, and these gazes are so strong, but they’re strong in a way that I feel seen. It’s almost like me looking at myself for a change, instead of looking at all these reflections of what other people are making me out to be. … In this room, somebody else understands. It’s belonging, safety, proof that I’m not crazy, which is sometimes the most violent part of white supremacy to me — that we always question ourselves. I’m not unsure of any part of myself in here.
Activist, educator, scholar, associate director of the UW Q Center
When I look at pictures of myself as a little kid, which I’ve had to do a lot lately as I’m going through all my parents’ stuff, I was always standing with head down, very serious face, very serious eyes. … I think it has something to do with growing up in Spokane, and it was 95% white and there was a lot of othering that happened to me there. When people were telling me to smile or telling me really exotifying things about my hair or skin color and then wanted to make a production of it or take a photo, I would always give (that look). I’m looking at (the portrait “Vile Heard, 2015”) and I’m thinking, “It’s hard, but it’s beautiful and that is what I’m trying to reclaim about my own story.” I always felt ashamed or disappointed that I always looked so hard or so angry, but that’s OK, and this is a really beautiful portrait.
Dancer, public-engagement associate at the Seattle Art Museum
Working here, I try to come into this space as often as I can and every time what strikes me the most is their gaze, especially when there are other people in this space, like guests, the word that always comes to mind is “retribution.” Also, I think each and every one is a compositional masterwork. I’m obsessed with just looking at them and wondering how the lighting got so perfect, how the cheekbone is so angular but curved.
It is such a brilliant and timely reminder that we are the art … All this other stuff is prop. It’s not about the material … the story is the way that we honor ourselves in this and the people that came before us. Materials can’t get in the way or diminish that in any way. Shooting yourself wrapped in trash doesn’t make the portrait any less brilliant or any less valuable.
It’s so fashion forward, though! Like who would not want black plastic gloves hanging from their body? It’s just like we push the boundaries of what is supposed to be. So you see that and you also see that we can make gold out of nothing and that’s also the brilliance of this. You make gold out of nothing, and we’ve all done that in the various ways we navigate the world. It’s like, “Oh you’re giving me that? Well I’m going to show you what I can do with that.” And then people are trying to learn the secrets.