Scrutinised, violated, undermined … three of Muholi’s self-portraits. Photograph: Zanele Muholi
Last year, Zanele Muholi found herself getting into what she describes wearily as an “unnecessary engagement” at a hotel check-in desk in New York. She had been invited to a conference, the room paid for by the organisers, but the hotel manager wouldn’t let her book in without a credit card or cash (she had neither on her). The tone of the exchange “led to something else” – she’s had it before in hotels: the feeling of suspicion, the idea she was trespassing or lost, rather than a guest. The following morning, in the hotel room she was finally allowed to stay in after much checking, Muholi channelled the experience into a self-portrait, her head covered by a mass of yarn. “I just felt so tangled and confined,” she says, “confused and angry.”
It hangs with dozens of others in a new UK show of the South African photographer’s work. Muholi created one self-portrait in 2012 but it wasn’t until 2014 that she went back to the project that would become Somnyama Ngonyama(translated as Hail the Dark Lioness), with the idea of doing 365 shots in all. “You live as a black person for 365 days, there are a lot of events and experiences that you go through in a year,” she says. “I wanted to map those important or specific moments.” Some were based on her own experiences, such as the hotel incident; others were from media reports of hate crimes and oppression.