Revealing Portraits: Neelika Jayawardane Discusses Zanele Muholi’s ‘Visual Activism’

Image: Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007.

Revealing Portraits: Reactions and Resistance to Zanele Muholi’s ‘Visual Activism’ in South Africa
Presented by M. Neelika Jayawardane
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
ICI Curatorial Hub

401 Broadway, Suite 1620
FREE and open to the public


Neelika Jayawardane, art critic and scholar, will discuss the earlier works (2005-2006) of artist Zanele Muholi and the activist impulses within this body of photographic work.

South African Zanele Muholi is now a globally recognized photographer and ‘visual activist’. In her latest project, a series of self-portraits, titled Somnyama Ngonyama – meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’ in Muholi’s first language, isiZulu – she theatrically stages stereotyped versions of blackness in which she, and black women in general, have been positioned historically, as well as in the present. These self-portraits are a departure from Faces and Phases, the portrait series she began creating in 2006, for which she came to be known as a talented photographer and a fearless activist. In that ongoing project, she commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black gay, lesbian and transgender people she meets in her journeys throughout her home country, visiting participants again and again to meticulously document their lives. This documentation – revealing the ubiquity and ordinariness of queerness, from urbane centers to the margins of South Africa’s townships – won her respect as a photographer, as well as the ire of conservative politicians in the country.

In the early years of South Africa’s democracy, euphoria of freedom may have convinced many that South Africa’s progressive constitution – which specified protection for LGBTI people – indicated a fully inclusive liberation. Yet, Muholi’s compulsion to create an archive of “visual, oral and textual materials that include black lesbians and the role they have played in our communities” evolved as a reaction to the opposition, exclusion, and erasure that she, and other LGBTI people faced from the nation. Her project aimed to counter invisibility, marginality and systemic silence; she sought, instead, to include LGBTI people to the forefront of South Africa’s liberation narrative. But violent reactions from politicians at her exhibitions, and subsequent theft of her hard-drives containing the records of her photographs highlighted the lengths to which the nation would go to force patriarchal compliance and heteronormativity. The reactions to Muholi and her work, during her early years of exhibiting her work in South Africa, bear witness to the schizophrenic experience of living in a nation which touted freedom for all, but where LGBTI people continued to be targets of brutal repression.

This program is organized by Moses Serubiri.

This event is free and open to the public. To attend, please RSVP to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with ZANELE in the subject line.


This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.


August 22, 2017

ICI Curatorial Hub
401 Broadway, Suite 1620
New York, NY 10013


M. Neelika Jayawardane

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She is a founding member of the online magazine, Africa is a Country, where she was Senior Editor and contributor from 2010-2016. Her scholarly publications focus on the nexus between South African literature, photography, and the transnational/transhistorical implications of colonialism and apartheid on the body. She is working two projects: the first is a book project on the Afrapix Collective, “South Africa’s only anti-apartheid photography agency”; her second project focuses on art produced as a vital part of contemporary student-activists’ movements in South Africa. Among her published texts, Jayawardane recently contributed the introductory essay for the South Africa pavilion’s 57th Venice Biennale catalogue, and essays for The Walther Collection’s publication (2017) and other artists’ catalogues. Her writing is featured in Transition, Aperture, Al Jazeera English, Contemporary&, Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, Even Magazine, and Research in African Literatures.

Moses Serubiri

Moses Serubiri is a writer, researcher, and curator. His essays are published in Chimurenga (South Africa), Kulturaustausch (Germany), and C& – Contemporary And (Germany). His research and curatorial projects include ‘Life mu City’ (2014) on urban language held at the Goethe Zentrum Kampala; the biennial contemporary art festival, KLA ART – UNMAPPED (2014) on urban mapping and social classification in Uganda. As research intern for C& – Contemporary And, he wrote short essays on African cultural producers on the international art scene. Serubiri is currently on the curatorial team for the 10th Berlin Biennale, curated by Gabi Ngcobo. He is an alumni of the Asiko International Art School, and was awarded the 2015 Stadtschreiber residency at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies.

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