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February 11, 2022

Acquisition: Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi, "Ntozakhe II"

Zanele Muholi
Ntozakhe II, (Parktown), 2016
photographic wall mural from digital file
sheet: 355.6 x 254 cm (140 x 100 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund
© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, Umlazi, South Africa) is a celebrated self-described visual activist who has in the last two decades documented Black gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex people in South Africa. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Muholi’s Ntozakhe II, (Parktown) (2016) from the series titled Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2012–present), in which the artist (who uses the pronouns they and their) turns the camera on themself to reclaim their blackness.

Drawing on the conventions of traditional portraits, fashion photographs, and ethnographic images, Muholi in Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness adorns themself with a variety of everyday objects—clothespins, scrubbing pads, latex gloves—to allude to their personal past, South Africa’s fraught history, and urgent global concerns, as well as sexual politics and cultural violence. By digitally darkening their skin and brightening the whites of their eyes, Muholi intensifies their own blackness to make these pictures call into question notions of beauty and pride. “I wanted to use my face so that people will always remember just how important our Black faces are, when confronted by them.” Echoing the words of the celebrated African American photographer Gordon Parks, Muholi asserts that they want to “teach people about our history, to rethink what history is all about, to reclaim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.” Muholi further intensifies the confrontational nature of their photographs by making very large prints, often more than 11 feet high.

Ntozakhe II, (Parktown) is a powerful self-portrait in which the artist employs their body to confront “the politics of race and pigment.” The artist posed in a loose-fitting toga-like garment with a crown of hair donuts. Those props, along with the slight tilt of the chin, upturned gaze, and elongated neck, make Muholi look like the Statue of Liberty. Noting that the statue is green, Muholi wondered why it could not also be Black: “In some ways, yes, Ntozakhe is based on the Statue of Liberty, representing the idea of freedom—the freedom all women should have—as well as pride: pride in who we are as Black, female-bodied beings. But what kind of freedom are we talking about? What is the color of the Statue of Liberty? What race is the figure monumentalized as Lady Liberty?”

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