Zanele Muholi an autobiographical panorama of the visual activist and artist as their creative practice evolves over time and across mediums opened at Southern Guild Los Angeles this week.

Provocative and perceptive, in this presentation Muholi encourages their audience to question the world around them—wielding artwork that re-imagines self and re-envisions agency. What does it mean to exist in this time? How can individual and cultural trauma be recognized and transcended? In what ways can art serve as a catalyst for discussion of, education about, and advocacy for antiracism, gender expression, and reproductive health? In each portrait—literal or symbolic—they confront and celebrate their identification with Black and LGBTQIA communities in their native South Africa, empowering individuals from various geographies and generations to identify with and make space for presence, self-love, remembrance, and healing.

This exhibition features Muholi’s recent additions to their ongoing self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama alongside their newest work in bronze sculpture. Their artworks are inextricable from the specificity of their person—each series imprinting and asserting their ancestral history, personal experience, and individual trauma. Titled “Hail the Dark Lioness” in English, the photographs that comprise this body of work are a visual exploration of the Zulu term Somnyama,meaning Black, and Ngonyama, which is both the word for lion and their mother’s family name. These portraits are produced all around the world, where Muholi captures their form in complete solitude. Wrapped in cloaks made from hotel bed sheets, adorned with crowns made from clothesline pins, decorated with lipstick made from toothpaste and vaseline, these works serve as a simultaneous document and vision of self-embodiment—existing in and through the immediacy of the medium. In making themselves their subject, Muholi offers a parallax gaze, one that empowers, rather than objectifies, their chameleon physique. Honoring their mother tongue and matriarchal lineage, these portraits express a web of relations that frame Muholi as an individual, a child, a grandchild, a sibling, a lover, a mind, a body, and a creative—unrestrained and ever-evolving.

It is with this consciousness of biological origin that Muholi embarked on their sculpture works, creating visceral visualizations of their genitalia and reproductive organs. Existing in a nonbinary body, Muholi has experienced various conflicts in gynecological medicine, and aims to expose the misinformation disseminated in South Africa’s Black and Trans communities, which contributes to the perpetuation of taboos around subjects of gender and sexual variance. After being diagnosed with uterine fibroids, the artist reflected on the intersecting influences of their inherited genealogy and Catholic upbringing—considering how they were undereducated about pre-existing conditions and criticizing religion’s condemnation of sexual pleasure and queer identity. Fabricated at a colossal scale, glistening bronze casts of their uterus and clitoris are juxtaposed with avatars of themselves in clerical robes—in one, bowing their head in solemn prayer, in another, reclining while stimulating their labia. In these works, sanctity is redefined—encouraging connection with and love for one’s unique body, advocating for self-exploration, medical literacy, and LGBTQIA-sensitive healthcare. For Muholi, “The uterus is life’s global signature, it is a passage that is common to all of us regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and geographical location. It is a common space, it is like water – water is water, blood is blood, the womb is the womb, birth is birth…”

These works serve as a revolving portal between the artist, subject, and audience—an intimate communion with the inherent complexities of self, place, and body politic. Both through the vocabulary of black-and-white photography and bronze-cast sculpture, they have an ability to make the mundane regal, to make the anatomical monumental. With a practice that welcomes duality, shape-shifting, and subjectivity, their work has the ability to, at once, look back, stand present, and stride forward—conscious of a world that will only continue to provide new obstacles and inequalities to overcome, in their individual context and political consciousness. This exhibition offers a space where people of all ages can commune, observe, and share their impressions and experiences safely and without judgment—where each person is given space to uncover their particular resonance with Muholi’s ambitious and expansive practice.