In Conversation: Zanele Muholi and Rhonda Smith

Rhonda Smith’s installation at Kingston Gallery was named after a term coined by professor and author Glenn Albrecht: solastalgia. A hybrid of the Latin sōlācium, meaning comfort, and the greek root –algia, denoting pain, solastalgia is “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.” Using earthen materials, Smith plumbs the emotional depths of our environment. Intimacy with our place of residence is what bonds sōlācium and -algia; they are a package deal. 

While Albrecht and Smith are most closely focused on the natural environment, a backdrop for the body, there is an undeniably human element. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” wrote Smith in her artist’s statement, “What is missing?” We have all lived through a year of COVID-19 in bodies under immediate assault, whether physical, medical, or emotional in nature. What does it look like when the self is bombarded with, or isolated from, the many factors of our natural environment? 

Rhonda Smith, Solastalgia (2020), clay, cork, glue, papier mache, pigment, silk, rock, twine, wire.

Smith’s work gains further perspective when placed in conversation with the recent talk given by South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi as part of ICA Boston’s virtual programming. In The Artist’s Voice: Zanele Muholi, Muholi detailed the political, anthropological, and historical layers to their work, highlighting the black, queer body as a site of continued tension between comfort and pain. 

“I just needed to produce these beautiful black images, to use my own body, not as somebody [else]’s subject,” explained Muholi about their series Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness. “Instead, a new dialogue: what is the politics of self presentation? What is the meaning of self in all of this mess?” The photographic series, available via virtual tour through Harvard’s Cooper Gallery, confronts the natural, social, and political environments that have shaped Muholi’s own understanding of their body and its resonance for other black creatives. Muholi uses the term “visual activism” to describe their work, calling it a process of ‘consciously creating to bring about change in people’s lives and surroundings.”

“Somnyama Ngonyama is translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness,’” explained Muholi. For them, the Zulu term indicates the way that one can “give presence to oneself, and to all those who are important to you.”

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo (2015).

As Smith said in her artist’s statement: “Imagine yourself the last of the species. Yet, we see a glimmer of hope.” Both Smith and Muholi hold this tension in their work, pulling it taught and presenting it to their viewers to confront directly. 

The two also recall geographies of the past. Where Smith’s is environmental, Muholi’s work is a candid engagement with the body largely focused on the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, giving presence to those who have been forced to hide for too long. Their long term project, Faces and Phases, foregrounds black lesbians who have been continued targets of discrimination despite the legalization of same-sex marraige in South Africa in 2006. The passage of this act, and the start of Muholi’s project, coincided with the ten-year anniversary of South Africa’s constitution.

Faces and Phases began when I worked for the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), which is an organization that I founded,” said Muholi. “It’s hard to celebrate the lives of those people who were brave enough to come out and say that they were, or that they are [LGBTQ+]. To thank them for even speaking out in a period where violence was rife in South Africa, especially for those [LGBTQ+] bodies that were out there in the open.” 

“We have a clause enshrined in our constitution that says: you are protected as a human being in your country of origin,” said Muholi. “So, 2006 then became that period in which I wanted to do something to contribute, to create an archive that could live beyond us.” Life and land are intimately connected, and in a country torn apart by apartheid just years before the constitution was ratified, this relationship is even more fraught.

The series is dedicated to Muholi’s friend, who passed away from HIV. 

“She wrote a piece that was called Please Remember Me When I’m Gone,” Muholi recounted. “It became the opening piece of Faces and Phases because she was speaking with that very same voice of wanting to be remembered, not to be forgotten for the work that we did.”

“There were many others who came before us whose lives and whose voices were never written in any books. [Their] voices were so strong, but because of silence and exclusion, they ended up not being documented or being counted in a visual history of this country.” The aim of Faces and Phases is to rectify this erasure of the black, queer experience from South African history.

“It’s a celebration, it’s a commemoration of somebody and many others—those who were once here, or those who come after us who will have that reference point, looking back at what existed before them.”

 Teekay Khumalo, BB Section, Umlazi, Durban, 2012.
Yonela Nyumbeka, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011.

Smith’s installation probed this same absence of intimacy, of engagement with others in our community and in our world. It is unnatural to make our nurturing instincts selective; to withhold. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” writes Smith. “What is missing?”  

From left to right: Rhonda Smith, Before Mothers and Fathers One (2019), epoxy clay, oil paint, and wire on board. Before Mothers and Fathers Two (2019),  Epoxy clay, oil paint, and wire on board.      

Muholi’s work draws Smith’s question into a sharper critique of our current time. “We’re speaking at a period where racism is rife, where homophobia, transphobia, and all the ‘-isms’ are rife,” they said. “So when we produce work, we are saying no to all that cripples or violates the next person.”

While their work may seem bleak and stylistically stark, both Muholi and Smith advocate a message of connection: “[I want my work] to say to people: let’s come together, let’s do something, let’s heal together,” said Muholi. “Let’s produce something and share with the world. I’m talking to creatives here. I’m not talking to a young person or to an older person, but to human beings who care about others. Let’s keep going on, let’s care for each other.”

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