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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at New Art Exchange (May 17, 2018)

30 May

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For the fourth meeting of our Introduction to Art Writing group, and the last in this initial series of exploratory sessions jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio in an attempt to test interest in an ongoing network for art-writing in Nottingham, we headed towards New Art Exchange to catch a walk-through and talk about Zanele Muholi‘s exhibition, Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail The Dark Lioness, led by the show’s curator, and Muholi’s long-time friend and collaborator, Renee Mussai. First shown in the UK at Autograph ABP during late 2017, Somnyama Ngonyama brings together more than sixty monochrome self portraits from an ongoing body of work in which Muholi adopts a wide range of guises, often constructed from such everyday found items as scouring pads, clothes pegs, vacuum cleaner tubes, bin liners and bicycle tyres, to frame an implicit commentary on questions of identity, post-apartheid South African history and the politics of sexuality, gender and representation.

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Mussai began by defining the cultural space in which Muholi works, noting that the artist’s intentions are drawn not from art historical frameworks but from LGBTQI activism in the South African context. Muholi established her international reputation with Faces & Phases (2006 – 2016), a body of photographs documenting activists, friends, political allies and others involved in South Africa’s LGBTQI scenes, documenting what was, and still remains, a marginalised and still frequently persecuted community. As Muholi stated in an interview about that decade-long project: “If I were to reduce myself to the label ‘visual artist’ it would mean that what I’m doing is just for play, that our identities, as black female beings who are queer or are lesbian, is just art. Art needs to be political—or let me say that my art is political. It’s not for show. It’s not for play…”

In the light of this, Mussai noted that while the performative self-portraits in Somnyama Ngonyama may superficially appear to draw on a wide range of art-historical referents, as an apparent contrast with the documentary framing of the portraits of the LGBTQI subjects featured in Faces & Phases, the frequent comparisons that have been made to artists like, say, Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo or Cindy Sherman, are not, in fact, a substantial part of the work’s intention despite some clear, if largely incidental, formal similarities to the work of these artists. Somnyama Ngonyama may take a different approach to Muholi’s political project to that seen in Faces & Phases, then, but it grows out of the same set of activist intentions and objectives, and works towards similar ends. These, in Muholi’s own words, are about “visual activism”, the use of photography as a tool to represent and give voice to a community in the context of a post-apartheid South Africa where, as Muholi points out, there remains a need to fight a continuing denial of that community’s right to exist: “This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”

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For Mussai, this made it imperative that Muholi’s work be read from its own activist perspective rather than in more conventional art-historical or formal terms. Within this,  Mussai drew attention to many layers of allusion, outlining those elements in the portraits which referenced specific events in the artist’s life or were intended to highlight particular events in recent and colonial history as these related to Muholi’s experience. Some were particular to individual images or groups of images, as where a portrait acknowledges a massacre of protesting workers at a platinum mine, uses inflatables to echo the forms of cysts removed during surgery, or constructs crowns of clothes pegs and scouring pads in tribute to the artist’s mother and her work as a cleaner for a white family under apartheid. Others thread through the series as a whole, as with the persistent echo of tropes drawn from 19th and 20th century ethnographic photography, the artist’s emphasis on dark skin tones in the print process and the portraits’ deployment of a consistently strong return gaze, giving the images, both individually and collectively, a powerful sense of agency as their subject looks back at the viewer from every point in the exhibition.

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These intentions, and Muholi’s use of the work’s striking technical, formal and performative qualities to carry a range of meanings grounded in personal and political  trauma and celebration, make it clear that questions of agency around identity and representation comprise the over-arching connective tissue that gives Somnyama Ngonyama its unusual potency as a body of work. As Mussai noted, Muholi’s identity in terms of race, gender and sexuality sits at the core of what these images mean even as the implications of these various facets of Muholi’s self-presentation operate on fluid terms. Initially identifying as a lesbian female, Muholi has more recently adopted ‘their’ rather than ‘she’ or ‘her’ as preferred pronouns, highlighting this fluid quality around gender in the images themselves. As Muholi points out“The [intention of the work] is to say, ‘I am one of us.’ I’m not just taking photos for fine arts—I’m producing content that speaks to South African visual history and a group of people who, simply because of how they express themselves, won’t be counted in history. That includes me…”

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Following Mussai’s talk, we were joined by Bethan Davies, creative programmer at New Art Exchange, to tell us a bit more about the history of the venue – opened in 2008, and one of the largest galleries dedicated to BAME arts in the UK – and her own path into her current role, from an English degree to working as a creative producer and programmer with a wide range of artists and communities. Some feedback on the sessions to date was presented by participants and future possibilities and plans for further activities with the Art Writing Group (now these four initial sessions are over and a core group of interested participants is in place) were also discussed. A ‘zine style publication responding to the Slavs and Tartars exhibition Mountain of Tongues is already in the pipeline for a July release, featuring creative texts written in response to the exhibition’s artworks and themes by six group members. Upcoming workshops are scheduled with Bad Vibes Club and One Of My Kind (OOMK), while additional plans for a studio-based writing residency to take a role in shaping future Art Writing Group activities are already in progress. The group will continue as a self-determining network and forum beyond these four initial sessions, with a regular base for meetings and administrative support provided by Backlit. Anyone interested in participating or getting further information on future activities and developments can contact Suzanne at Backlit for more details (http://backlit.org.uk/contact/).

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