The downstairs gallery at the Colby Museum of Art is a soaring study in black and white. “Study” is one of those words that can shoot off in all directions, and in this case, it’s supposed to. The gallery is painted black and white. It features black-and-white photography, mostly mounted in black frames with white borders. And the artist works determinedly in a palette of black with a bit of white and gray.

The show, called “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness,” features all self-portraits by the South African artist Zanele Muholi. The poses lean on a blend of personal, societal and historical iconography. The images are extraordinarily powerful and engaging, which serves to make them profoundly unsettling.

Zanele MuholiSomnyama Ngonyama, Oslo, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, courtesy of Autograph

The show was organized by Autograph ABP, London, a social justice organization dedicated to using photography to further understanding of identity issues, and curated by Renée Mussai, Autograph’s senior curator and head of archive and research. Viewers are greeted with the following quote by Muholi, mounted above the exhibition: “I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”

This canny phrase will likely put most visitors to the Colby College Museum of Art on notice. That’s good. In many ways, it’s precisely the point.

The challenge is not limited to the terms of the South African artist’s “blackness” but gender identity as well. This is a particularly complicated issue to discuss for several reasons: To begin, while the fascinating and text-rich catalog (it’s $5 and features about 20 interesting essays – get it) refers to Muholi as “she,” Colby’s wall copy introduces Muholi as “b. 1972; they/them/their.”

While the obvious thing to do is follow the most recent information – Colby’s wall copy – the notion is further complicated by roles played by Muholi in their pictures. While the images are all self-portraits (“auto-portrait” is the European version, and it fits better here, avoiding notions of the “self”), Muholi plays characters, sets up fictions and refers to tropes and cliches. (As an extraordinarily sophisticated artist, many want to assume that every reference is intentional, but I think that’s impossible: No one can foresee every connection made by every member of the audience).

My initial response to the entry image, for example, was that Muholi was playing off a well-known photo of Beyonce. In the image, Muholi is wearing a wooly wig with what can easily inferred (via the title of the show: “Somnyama Ngonyama” means “Dark Lioness” in isiZulu, the artist’s native language) intent of looking like a lion. Muholi is extremely handsome and the photo is gorgeous. But however accomplished Beyonce is, I can imagine some Muholi fans might be offended by that. My other immediate reading of the image – which you see before you read the copy; it’s 8 feet high, after all – is that the subject looks like so many “important” men in 17th and 18th century portraits: the guys with wigs – kings, lords and such. By the time I got through the show, I didn’t see Beyonce, but the pose of those self-inflated colonizers wouldn’t leave me. But, here again, that was what I projected onto the image. I have no idea if it ever entered Muholi’s mind.

For the most part, the artist stares directly back at the viewer/the camera/us/themself unsmiling and with a completely flat affect. Muholi dons many types of outfits, some of which are culturally recognizable while many are fantastical. In one, Muholi has 100 chopsticks in their hair; this could go many ways depending on context. Moreover, there is another image in which the artist wears porcupine quills in their hair and around their neck. But in another, Muholi wears a traditional Japanese kimono. And that raises all sorts of questions: It’s defined by tradition as a female outfit and that tradition is not Muholi’s culture. So what is the status of the artist’s – for the sake of discussion – “colonizing” the symbols of another culture?

This is exactly why this is such an important exhibition. Muholi is not only presenting unsettling images and leading us to question our assumptions, but also giving us the discourse, the vocabulary (visual and verbal) and means to do so meaningfully. Muholi’s reclamation project is personal on many levels, but presenting to the viewers as they do, the artist is engaging in a profoundly subversive project and handing out weapons to most everyone who needs them.

Zenele Muholi, Bayephi III, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, 2017. Commissioned by Autograph ABP © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York. Courtesy of Autograph

One of Muholi’s gestures geared toward social justice is giving every one of the figures a name. This has many effects: It plays up the fictional aspect of the images, allowing viewers to see them as archetypes, cliches, memes or, probably more importantly, individual people. Several of the works are titled “MaID”: Muholi notes that is about their own “ID,” but also that it is a reference to their mother who worked as a maid and, as maids so often are, was brutally mistreated.

I was particularly struck by “Vile,” an image of Muholi dressed like a classical Italian clown. The image is in pure black and white, with the outfit outlined in white tape. (The stripes also hint at prison garb.) The figure’s mouth appears painted white. And the name, “Vile,” it turns out, is not English, but isiZulu for “Heard.” This only further implodes the possible discourses of traditional European opera tropes and prison. And, yes, Muholi has a history of shooting in prisons and making prison references to, say, where Nelson Mandela was held.

We also see images of the artist using, for example, scrub pads to build up stylized coiffures. We see poses (and Afros) that reference black activists from the 1960s. We see references to African culture, such as a huge necklace of cockles, recognizably a sign of wealth. We see see Muholi’s breasts again and again, and even a shot of the artist lying nude on a bed facing away from the viewer but gaining eye contact by holding up a mirror. The effect of this last image is incredible: the coolness of the model’s gaze lacks coquettetry no less than it lacks fear. Certainly, it engages in a series of traditional sexual discourses including those of art history, film and pornography, but it employs them at a critical distance.

There is nothing shrill in “Somnyama Ngonyama,” and for some, that probably only makes the show more unsettling. A clear ideological mission, after all, is easier to pigeonhole and ignore. But “Somnyama Ngonyama” is extraordinarily engaging. It is fascinating, beautiful, troubling and impressive. Everyone should see it. It is an unforgettable show.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]