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 a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg (South Africa). She is a recipient of the 2018 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for a book project on the Afrapix, a South African photographers’ agency that operated during the last decade of apartheid. Jayawardane was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Zambia, and completed her university education in the US, where she currently works. Her scholarly publications focus on the nexus between South African literature, photography, and the transnational/transhistorical implications of colonialism and apartheid on the body. As a founding member of the digital project, Africa is a Country, she became increasingly interested in writing in a manner that is accessible and welcoming to a larger public. She recently contributed an essay for Aperture’s publication of South African “visual activist” Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits, and catalogue article for African Mobilities: This Is Not a Refugee Camp Exhibition at The Architekturmuseum der TU München, in Munich, Germany. She also wrote the introductory essay for the South Africa pavilion’s 57th Venice Biennale catalogue, an essay for The Walther Collection’s publication (2017), as well as numerous essays for artists’ catalogues. Along with academic publications, her writing is featured in Al Jazeera English, Transition, Aperture, Contemporary&, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, and Even Magazine.

Serubiri Moses

Serubiri Moses is an independent writer and curator. His essays are published in Chimurenga (South Africa), Frieze (U.K.), and C& – Contemporary And (Germany). His research and curatorial projects include: ‘Life mu City’ (2014), a series of public programs with the Goethe Center Kampala, and the biennial contemporary art festival, KLA ART - UNMAPPED (2014) among others. He has produced essays on African artists and curators for the online magazine C& – Contemporary And. He is currently on the curatorial team for the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, curated by Gabi Ngcobo. He has served as faculty – and is alumnus – 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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