Zanele Muholi, one of South Africa’s most acclaimed artist-activists, is collaborating with Gavin Rajah, a Cape Town-based designer, on an editioned homeware collection inspired by Muholi’s ongoing Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) series. 

These striking iconic photographic works depict the artist as the subject in different guises, summoning Muholi’s ancestors but also exploiting and subverting fashion and ethnographic photographic tropes relating to Africa. 

The Somnyama Ngonyama series was first exhibited in 2015 at the artist’s galleries in South Africa and the USA but has since found audiences around the world from the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the Seattle Art Museum, in the USA to the Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Works from this series have also featured in numerous museum survey shows such as at Tate Modern, London, UK (2020-21). This exhibition will tour across Europe at institutions in Paris, Berlin and Umeå in Sweden this year. 

“The real power of Muholi’s project, which is a radical act of protest and reclamation, is a deeply personal response … to the colonizing and exoticizing of the black female body by all those cameras that arrived before,” opined Andrea Scott in the New Yorker

As an image-maker of a different kind and a social activist, Rajah was drawn to Muholi’s practice. The Somnyama Ngonyama series particularly resonated with his visual sensibility. His obsession with works from this series led to him detecting black and white patterns within some of the monochromatic images. His ambition to translate these latent patterns into woven textiles and create a homeware collection around them immediately chimed with Muholi.

“I had always been working with fabrics. In many of my works, I have material draped over me. Gavin had seen something in my images that I hadn’t thought of and he is not compromising the original works,” says Muholi. 

Since creating a line of T-shirts to coincide with their early series of portraits of black lesbians in South Africa – Faces and Phases – Muholi has been keen to find ways for their works to enjoy further life and extend “into the world in which I live.”

With cushions, carpets, throws, curtains and candles forming some of the products of this new homeware range titled Somnyama, the underlying aesthetics underpinning Muholi’s art will be able to penetrate beyond the walls of museums and galleries. The abstract nature of the woven prints that Rajah has extrapolated from Muholi’s photographic series means that the images themselves are not simply being reproduced onto products as has been the case for many homeware lines relating to iconic artworks. 

“I was never interested in replicating Muholi’s works. The prints and other products are an extension and diffusion of their art,” observes Rajah. 

Rajah has thoughtfully extracted the essence of Muholi’s aesthetic. The woven fabrics, largely from recycled fibres, are visually united – all black and white – but also bear an African imprint, though they are not “geographically defined,” adds Rajah.  

In South Africa, he is a renowned fashion designer, having presented numerous collections at fashion weeks in South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco and showcases in Paris and New York. His fashion has featured in among others, Uomo collezioni, Donna Collezioni, Vogue, BBC, CNN and the Los Angeles Times. He dresses many of Cape Town’s social and political elite. His distinctive sense of style has in recent years extended into interior objects and creations, which are produced with the same high quality as his couture.  

“It is important for artists to collaborate. It is good for black queer people to come together to create new things,” says Muholi. 

All the products from the Somnyama collection will be editioned – 100 of each – and be accompanied by tags referencing the photographic works that formed the inspiration. They will be sold exclusively online from late July.

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