Black like me: Pictures of selfie control

01 December 2015 - 02:05 By Graham Wood

Zanele Muholi joked self-consciously about selfies a number of times during last Friday's walkabout of her exhibition, Somnyama Ngonyama, at the Stevenson Gallery, in Johannesburg. The bigger part of the exhibition consists of a new series of self-portraits taken around the world, mostly in hotel rooms, whereas the rest is a continuation of the series of portraits of the black LGBTI community in South Africa for which she is best known.The first room of the gallery displays portraits of Brave Beauties, most of them winners of local Miss Gay beauty pageants.Muholi has been taking this kind of portrait for almost a decade and her expanding archive has lost none of its power.That's saying something in the age of Instagram, when the proliferation of beautiful images has reached saturation so that almost all of them become banal, if not meaningless. Yet Muholi seems to have found a way through.Although he was writing decades before social media, John Berger, one of the most influential art critics of the past century, tried to imagine a way in which photography might find a use outside of, as Susan Sontag put it in On Photography, "anaesthetis[ing] the injuries of class, race and sex".Muholi's achievement is to have done exactly that. As a visual activist she is dedicated to recognising the significance of individual lives often rendered invisible in mainstream culture.The selfies in the second room are at once more public and more personal. In them Muholi uses her own body and stuff in hotel rooms to reinsert her "black body" into the visual archive of events.These images drive home how history and politics are personal.By using her body, she finds another way to reclaim memory from the ceaseless tide of imagery.Somnyama Ngonyama is on until January 29

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