Accepted paper:

Anarchiving the personal: intimate provocations in Zanele Muholi's Somnyana Ngonyama series


Leora Farber (University of Johannesburg)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how, in her Somnyana Ngonyama series (2012-2017), Zanele Muholi uses her body to activate a range of formal strategies that disrupt, refigure and unsettle the (colonial) ethnographic archive. These provocations are considered as a 'body of personal experience'.

Paper long abstract:

For South-African photographer Zanele Muholi, the archive is not a material repository or source of a singular 'history' recounted from a position of 'neutrality', but a contested subject and medium in itself. In her practice, she presents 'contemporary refigurations' of the ethnographic archive. These refigurations include use of strategies such as deconstructing colonial photographic archives, exposing their internal constructions by playing with, appropriating, and subverting their tropes and imagery; re-examining histories in ways that prise open possibilities for alternative constructions of identities, subjectivities and agencies; scrambling hetero-normative identities in ways that introduce models of subjectivities which destabilise fixed positionings within racial and gendered dichotomies; deploying formal strategies such as pastiche and parody in ways that offer fresh perspectives from which to re-look at histories; and the creation of new anarchival forms. She also foregrounds photography's role in constructing identities and subjectivities in colonial and contemporary contexts, highlighting how the presence of the camera impacts on ways in which those imaged are represented and positioned. I explore how Muholi activates these strategies in her Somnyana Ngonyama series (2012-2017). In this provocative series of self-portraits, Muholi can be said to use her own body in ways that give rise to an 'archival body of personal experience'; the images act as provocations in which "the inherited iconographies of ethnicity and sexuality are simultaneously performed and deflated and signs of modernity and indigeneity are intentionally and subversively blurred". (Garb, T. 2011. Figures & fictions: contemporary South African photography. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl/V&A Publishing: 17).

panel P029
Bodies of Archives/Archival Bodies