Titled 'Somnyama Ngonyama', Zulu for “hail the black lioness”, the series sees Muholi roaring against racial prejudice in the photographic archive and revisiting it with aplomb. It is on show at WNTRP, the secondary space opened last September by Jan and Tina Wentrup on Potsdamer Straße in Berlin.

Engaging with the language of theatre, Muholi interprets various characters and archetypes, using wigs, outfits and props. By darkening her skin and sometimes lightening her lips, she has enhanced her physical features in an assertion of her black identity, forcing the viewer to question their role in gazing at her.

Zanele Muholi, "Thulile II, Umlazi, Durban", 2016 50 x 41 cm, Silver gelatin print, Courtesy the artist, Wentrup, Berlin; Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York
Muholi, 44, realised these performative portraits in 15 cities, including Johannesburg, New York and Florence, in three different continents – Africa, America and Europe. Rather than having a single studio dedicated to making the series, she worked in a location-based way, using found objects that resonated with her.

For instance, in 'Thembekile, Parktown', 2015, an electrical cord is draped round her neck and worn as a necklace. Her troubled expression alludes to the discomfit that black women felt when they were snapped by western travel photographers. Meanwhile, the furs in the background of 'Bakhambile, Parktown (2016)' comment on trophy hunting, while the sensual character with a mane of hair is the “exotic female” caught on camera.

Zanele Muholi, "Thembekile, Parktown", 2015 90 x 72 cm, Silver gelatin print, Courtesy the artist, Wentrup, Berlin; Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York
Some images refer to “blackfacing”, in which white actors wearing crude makeup performed African-American roles in 19th and 20th-century minstrel shows in the US. Others are about South African history. 'Thulile II, Umlazi, Durban', 2016, where Muholi stares out from behind a barbed wire fence, is a criticism of the apartheid era.

Muholi also looks at internal struggles that have happened in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zanele Muholi, "Namhla at Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina", 2016 80 x 53.33 cm, Silver gelatin print, Courtesy the artist, Wentrup, Berlin; Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York
Zanele Muholi, "Bakhambile, Parktown", 2016 80 x 60 cm, Silver gelatin print, Courtesy the artist, Wentrup, Berlin; Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York
In 'Thulani II, Parktown', 2015, which is not on show at WNTRP, she adopts the stance of a miner: a hat and goggles on her head, her skin covered in soot. It references the Marikana platinum mine massacre, north of Johannesburg, in 2012, when 34 miners were killed by predominantly black policemen.

This complex, psychologically charged series sees Muholi interrogating her identity as a black woman and her role as a South African photographer. Through revisiting the history of black personhood in photography, she is affirming her place, as an activist, within it.