Zanele Muholi’s “Reading Room”

  • Ashraf Jamal Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town.
Keywords: Raced optic, image-repertoire, opacity, disruption, soliloquy


In 2016, Stevenson Gallery (Cape Town) published 5,000 copies of a tabloid newspaper featuring the South African artist, Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits. The magazine – lo-fi, lightweight, loose-leafed, portable and free – was accompanied by an essay by M Neelika Jayawardane (2016). I was immediately struck by the democratic nature of this venture, for here was a product not only relevant to those who attended Muholi’s globally circulated exhibition – entitled Somnyama Ngonyama, and shown at the Stedelijk Museum, LUMA Arles, in the Netherlands, France, United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere – but also of great relevance to those in schools, local communities and township libraries. This realisation has prompted me to share the magazine with my film, photography and journalism students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and to ensure its distribution in schools in the Western Cape.

Central to Muholi’s images and Jayawardane’s text are matters of race, sexuality, and, all importantly, the need to redefine and re-imagine the black body. Against the reactionary return to black essentialism, the further aggravation of “black pain”, and the concomitant racial divisiveness which this declamatory, spectacularised, and even nihilistic return to black self-determination has fostered, Muholi’s project brokered a more reflective, immersive and exploratory approach.

Her ongoing body of work – in which she theatricalises and re-imagines her identity in photographs recorded daily – is a vital alternative to a programmatic and reductive identity politics. At every turn her photographs make one aware of the criticality and dailiness of self-fashioning.

That Muholi expressly devised a “Reading Room” – as a context through which to read race and as a parallel space for her travelling  exhibition – reminds one of the artist’s resolute and long-standing activism. She, in effect, is asking her readers/viewers to re-evaluate the assumptions and prejudices which inform understandings of race and its representation within the art world. Through her Reading Room, she is asking one to reconsider how one reads oneself and others.

This deeply intimate yet pedagogic venture serves as an inspired mirror for concerns with and around race and racism inside South African educational institutions. It challenges the commodification of blackness in visual culture, and, I argue, proffers a credible “emancipatory possibility”. Muholi’s Reading Room, in brief, is a striking answer to, and fulfilment of, Stefan Collini’s (2012:8) vision of what the purpose of an education or the role of a university should be – a world, a place, in which future scholars are not shaped by ‘an instrumental necessity’, but by an education ‘intrinsic to their character’; a realm in which one can pursue ‘the open-ended search for deeper understanding’ which fosters ‘autonomy’.