The Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University has acquired four works by South African photographer Sir Zanele Muholi (b. 1972). The works are from the series Somnyama Ngonyama, which means “Hail the Dark Lioness” in isiZulu. Made internationally and in South Africa since 2012, the self-portraits depict Muholi in different public and private spaces during their travels, often with added props that convey both personal meanings and cultural commentary related to issues of race, identity, politics, and inclusivity. These powerful photographs address the history and visual language of portraiture while also confronting representations of Black and LGBTQIA+ people. The acquisition of these works supports the museum’s strategic mission to diversify its collection and was made possible thanks to the late Raymond and Laura Wielgus, whose dedication to the arts and generous support of the Eskenazi Museum continues to advance the museum’s mission. The Wielgus endowment supports the museum’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas department, and this acquisition reflects cross-curatorial collaboration with the museum’s Global Contemporary Art and Photography departments.
Muholi is a visual activist and photographer. For more than a decade they have documented Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people’s lives in South Africa. Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission is “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.” Through their work, they aim for a more democratic and representative South African homosexual history, with the hope of offsetting the stigma and negativity attached to queer identity in South African society.
In the works from Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi becomes both the participant and the image-maker as they turn the camera on themself. Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, Muholi’s self-portraits reference specific events in South Africa’s political history. Through exaggerating the darkness of their skin tone, Muholi reclaims their Blackness and offsets the culturally dominant images of Black women in the media today.
Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban, and lives in Johannesburg. They studied advanced photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and in 2009 completed an MFA in documentary media at Ryerson University, Toronto. Muholi’s work has been acquired by several university art museum collections; however, the Eskenazi Museum of Art is the first Big Ten and midwestern museum to acquire photographs by Muholi. This acquisition actively supports the Eskenazi Museum’s broader goals to strengthen our regional impact through providing students with opportunities to study original works of art. Furthermore, the acquisition of four works from the same series offers a unique opportunity to exhibit them together, as well as discuss their role within and impact upon Muholi’s overarching oeuvre.
Of the works, Allison Martino, Laura and Raymond Wielgus Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas, commented: “Zanele Muholi’s work and leadership as a visual activist is advancing new directions for contemporary photography and social change within South Africa and beyond. I am excited about this acquisition of Muholi’s photographs at the Eskenazi Museum to share the important stories and histories that Muholi tells through their work.”
The Eskenazi Museum has a long history of actively studying, exhibiting, and publishing our collection of more than 22,000 works on paper. Our Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs offers access to the collection, an extensive research program, and a comprehensive collections care program. The recently established Martha and David Moore Study for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs offers an innovative space to activate these new additions to the collection through regular course viewings, scholarly appointments, and community engagement.
Within the museum’s collection is a significant selection of modern and contemporary African photography, including works by photographers Malick Sidibé and Tijani Àdìgún Sitou. Zanele Muholi’s work strengthens these holdings and brings the museum to the forefront of this area amongst peer academic institutions while serving its teaching mission. Campus units at Indiana University such as the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Gender Studies, African Studies Program, the Kinsey Institute, and the Center for Integrative Photographic Studies, among others, will benefit from collaborative research, teaching, and exhibition opportunities engendered by this important acquisition.
Of the acquisition, Wilma E. Kelley Director David A. Brenneman said, “The museum is thrilled to add these important works by Zanele Muholi to our significant and growing holdings of photography and African collections. We are delighted to provide all IU students with new opportunities to engage with original works of art. We look forward to sharing these wonderful works of art with our community.”