Panegyric Imagery in Zanele Muholi’s “Somnyama Ngonyama”

Zanele Muholi’s photographic series of digitally altered self-portraits “Somnyama Ngonyama” (translated by the artist as “Hail, the Dark Lioness”) consists of carefully posed images taken in locations around the world, through which the artist-activist gives voice to a vast number of black South Africans, primarily LGBTQ, long relegated by dominant social institutions to the shadows and the depredations of violence.

The works, exhibited in numerous galleries and collected in a striking monograph, have received extensive critical and scholarly attention. I have been especially impressed by Nomusa Makhubu’s essay “Performing Blackface: Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama,” (OnCurating v.49 ) which perceptively unpacks elements of parodic inversion and queer critique of colonial racialist minstrelsy imagery in these compelling, disturbing images.

In this post, I’d like to build on Makhuba’s discussion in light of my interest in ritual poetics among Nguni-speaking speaking peoples. I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which Muholi’s creatively plays on the symbolic repertoire of izibongo royal praise poetry in isiZulu and other Nguni languages.

As Makhuba notes, the title of the series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” could be literally translated from isiZulu as “Dark Lion.” Why does the artist insist on the English translation, “Hail, the Dark Lioness,” emphasizing praise and rendering the noun female? David Coplan notes that in contemporary Zulu networks, the term “hail” is at times used to signal gender and queer inclusivity. Beyond this, the term “hail” would appear to index the long tradition of royal praise poetry in Nguni-speaking societies, in which the sovereign is at times characterized as a lion, with the royal-coded term “Ngonyama” favored over the ordinary isiZulu term for lion, “ibhubesi. ” Hence, the izibongo praise poem of King Shaka: “UyiSilo! UyiNgwe! UyiNgonyama!” (You are a wild animal! A leopard! A lion!) (Cope 1968, 108-9, also quoted in Gunner 1984: 289). The term is also used in one of the most widely heard (if not universally understood) lyrics in the world, the first line of “The Circle of Life, “ the opening number of The Lion King, “ Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”, to which the chorus responds, “Sithi uhm ingonyama”, a call-response sequence which may be translated as “Behold, a lion [king]’ is coming, father/Oh yes, it is a lion [king].”

During my fieldwork in Ngoni communities in eastern Zambia, royal praise singers (iizimbongi) with whom I consulted often emphasized that their work was “heavy” and ritually dangerous. The pangyerics that they perform in rapid, fierce, staccato rhythms metaphorically model the king as a lion or leopard, who pounces upon, tears apart and “stabs” at is victims. Explained one senior poet, “When I sing this way, I become like the king, but I can be a victim at any moment of his rage, and of the anger of all the kings who came before him.” Another explained, “When I speak, I feel every wound that pierced the king and his forefathers, but I am unbowed and so we rise to victory.” To call up the most potent aspects of the sovereign is to unleash violent energies, that condense and make visible the king’s multidimensional status, hated and stalked by his enemies, even as he rises as a predatory war leader who sheds his blood on behalf of his people, striking down external and internal adversaries, seen and unseen.

The Nguni sovereign traverses the ambiguous terrain between this world and the other world of the shades, in ways that are necessary for cosmological reproduction yet tinged with destructive potential. At the climactic moment of the Swazi incwala ceremony of first fruits, the monarch manifest himself as the monstrous creature of the bush, “Silo,” who bites (luma) and tosses a first fruit so as to expel the pollution of the previous year, paving the way for safe consumption of the new year’s produce by the entire polity. At an early moment of the ceremony, a bovine is ritually slaughtered on the sovereign’s behalf, allowing him to enter into a “dark” phase of existence, from which he and the kingdom may be triumphantly reborn anew. Praise singers, it is said, embody these dangerous transitions, moving across thresholds between life and death, between being predators and being themselves predated upon.

Speculatively, Zanele Muholi moves across a comparably ambiguous terrain in this series. The artist embraces deep blackness with defiant pride, with full knowledge of the enormous dangers posed to persons of color in general and queer persons of color in particular. Rather like a royal praise singer, Muholi fully embodies the position of the exalted being they seek to honor, in all of its rich contradictions, as a locus of danger and assertiveness, even while, as a witness to that glory, they assume positions of intense vulnerability.

The artist’s translation of Ngonyama as “Lioness” may also emerge, in part, out of the deep cosmological structure of Nguni kingship. There’s considerable evidence that precolonial Nguni sovereignty was “diarchic,” founded on complex co-rule between the (often secluded) Queen Mother and the more visible male king, with the female sovereign responsible for the periodic rebirth and growth of the land, and the male monarch especially associated with war, conquest, and blood-letting in sacrifice, hunting, and the upholding of legal principles. Among the best known queen mothers in Nguni history was Ntombasi of the Ndandwe kingdom, who appears to have been a predominant co-ruler with her son Zwide, before the kingdom was routed by the forces of Shaka Zulu, whose mother Nandi herself wielded considerable influence prior to her death.

It may be that in the Somnyama Ngonyama series, Zanele Muholi is similarly embodying a diarchic or multi-gendered continuum of sovereignty, which like the moon itself waxes and wanes over the course of the annual cycle. For a year, the photographer shot a self portrait each day, depicting the great range of dangers facing black South Africans and queer persons, across a range of gendered positions. (The series is ongoing.) “Phindile I” (Paris, 2014) shows their body arranged in the odalisque postion classically used to depict inmates of a royal seraglio. “ Somnyama I, (Paris, 2014),” seems to depict the figured associated with high ranking warrior status. In “Zamile (KwaThema, 2016O,” Muholi appears as a male novice undergoing initiation, wrapped in a blanket. In “Thulani II (Parktown, 2015)” they wear headgear reminiscent of a miner’s helmet, honoring the dozens of strikers killed in the 2012 Marikana massacre. In contrast, .“Thuleleni, (Amsterdam, 2018)” presents the artist in a ruff collar reminiscent of the wealthy Dutch merchants who oversaw the colonial project.

The net effect is to interpolate the “visual activist” Muholi into a dizzying range of embodied subject positions, taking themselves and their audience through an odyssey of pain, vulnerability, and loss, from which they emerge fierce, unbowed, and ultimately victorious. Such is the journey of the Nguni imbongi (royal praise singer), who takes on the suffering, the power, and the danger of the one who is praised, in order to channel creative flows of energy that summon up and reconstitute the sovereign social order. As Muholi hails this hybrid, multi-gendered dark lioness, that sovereign order is radically restructured, giving birth to a better world that fully encompasses and affirms those who were, for so long, consigned to the outer limits of the social.


Cope, T. Ed.),1968. Izibongo: Zulu Praise Poems. Oxford, Clarendon Press,

Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne, 1984. Ukubonga Nezibongo : Zulu praising and praises., PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies University of London


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