New director at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, Lands Zanele Muholi Photography Exhibit

Zanele Muhol, ‘Work, Parktown’, 2016

© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

When Andrea Barnwell Brownlee took over the management of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in December 2020, she promised changes. She cast a “radical”, progressive vision for the 60 year old institution in Jacksonville, FL.

“I’m thinking of ways to bring something to Jacksonville that will stretch people. Bringing ideas, individuals, concepts and works of art that will stretch people, ”she told Forbes.com.

Brownlee didn’t stop there.

“Jacksonville has incredible opportunities to present exhibits that have never taken place in this part of Florida. We have the opportunity to bring (new) artists, projects, ideas and topics to the fore, ”she added.

During the interview process that resulted in her becoming only the fourth African American woman to run a “mainstream” American art museum, she went way beyond what the cummer had been before.

“I was asked what my vision would be for the institution five years from now, and I talked about it being a national platform,” Brownlee told the museum’s search committee.

Their five-year vision came true in five months when the Cummer Museum announced today that it is showing “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness,” an international traveling exhibition of more than 80 self-portraits by visual activist Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972).

After this exhibition in the exhibition calendar of Muholi, the first major survey of her work in Great Britain will take place, which takes place in the Tate Modern in London among the few most renowned museums for contemporary art in the world.

This could be the first time the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and the Tate Modern have been mentioned in the same sentence. For the cummer, showing off the artwork of a living, African, non-binary, gendered photographer is unprecedented.

Jacksonville has Brownlee to thank for that.

Brownlee put this show on as a director at Spelman College in Atlanta in 2018. A void in Cummer’s exhibition calendar caused by COVID allowed Brownlee to make their connections and push the show in. This will be the final US exhibition venue.

Not bad for a first act.

“Zanele Muholi’s visually appealing self-portraits force the viewer to consider current issues such as contrast, dignity, solidarity, difference, history and activism in a meaningful way,” said Brownlee when announcing the exhibition. “Everyone invites you to look deeply and ultimately encourages viewers to ask critical questions about empathy, courage and the power of each individual voice.”

Muholi uses her body (Muholi’s preferred pronoun) as a canvas to grapple with the deeply personal politics of race and representation in the visual archive. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, translated from isiZulu, one of the official languages ​​of South Africa, into “Hail of the Dark Lioness” uses the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography and the familiar clichĂ©s of ethnographic images to reformulate contemporary identity politics.

Every black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social (in) justice, human rights and controversial depictions of the black body.

Zanele Muholi,

Zanele Muholi, “Best I, Mayotte”, 2015

© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

“I am reclaiming my blackness, which in my opinion is constantly being carried out by the privileged other,” said Muholi of this work. “My reality is that I don’t imitate being black. It’s my skin and the experience of being black is ingrained in me. Just like our ancestors, we live black 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear. “

The exhibition can be seen from April 15th to June 6th at the Cummer.

Throughout the series, the dark complexion of Muholi’s skin (enhanced by increased contrast in post-production) becomes the focus of a profound, multi-layered survey of beauty, pride, desire, self-care, well-being and the many interconnected phobias and daily navigated isms such as homophobia, Transphobia, xenophobia, racism and sexism to name a few.

“(Somnyama Ngonyama offers) a compelling and visionary mosaic of identities, an exquisite self-empire,” said exhibition curator RenĂ©e Mussai, senior curator of Autograph London, the show’s organizer. “Every photo in the series, every visual inscription, every confrontational narrative shows a self in deep dialogue with countless others: implicitly gender-specific, non-conforming, culturally complex and historically based black bodies.”

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL.

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL.

Ryan Ketterman

With this one exhibition, Brownlee confirmed the museum’s unconventional decision to hand over the reins to her. With Zanele Mhuoli as the starting point for where Brownlee takes the cummer from here, this is considered to be one of the most exciting developments in museum tours in America.

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