ZANELE Muholi is a major figure in photographic art today. Black, queer and South African (they work and live under the non- binary pronouns they/them), Muholi considers their work to be always engaged in political and social struggle.

The artist’s latest work – a series of 17 self-portraits, taken in various places around the world – is titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, The Dark Lioness). Showing in the East Quad of Glasgow University from October 1 until November 6, the outdoor exhibition (admission to which is free) is produced by the Belfast Photo Festival in partnership with Glasgow gallery Street Level Photoworks and The Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow.

For Muholi, by turning the camera on themself – in a series of monochrome images that enhance and emphasise the blackness of their own skin – they are addressing the terrible history of apartheid in South Africa, the horrors of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and also the continuation of racial oppression in the world today. “It is important to recognise that our past history of struggle has shaped the present moment,” says Muholi.

“As citizens of South Africa especially, we cannot forget the brutalities of apartheid; it has shaped our consciousness as a nation, hence our work is deeply connected to this history of activism.

“To me, Somnyama Ngonyama is one way of reckoning with this past – to address its politics of race, racism and colonialism – and it is also a way of addressing a past that still informs the present.” It is, Muholi continues, inherent in their artistic practice that it, “offers me the opportunity to not only work creatively through these politics of the past but also to directly link them to the present; to connect these dots”.

The history of the representation of blackness – throughout and beyond the period of European colonisation of Africa and the consequent slave trade, and throughout the history of the United States – is a deeply problematic and painful one. That history includes the European colonists’ “human zoos” of the 19th to early 21st centuries, the outrageous blackface of The Black and White Minstrel Show (which only ended on UK television in 1978), and degrading and exoticising imagery that persists in the 21st century.

Many arts lovers in Scotland will remember Exhibit B, a show that was staged by white South African theatre and performance maker Brett Bailey at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014. The show – in which black people were exhibited in cages, representing the continuation of racial oppression in the modern day – was lauded for its perceived anti-racism, while also facing calls for its closure on the grounds that it actually was racist.

For their part, Muholi expresses a certain scepticism about non-black people in the media and arts representing blackness. “By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other,” the artist says.

“My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”

The outcome of that fearlessness is, in this exhibition, a series of very striking images in which Muholi seems to represent, simultaneously, themself and a number of adopted characters, including figures that mock the history of racist representation of black people. In one image, for instance, the artist is represented with their hair filled with white combs (they are even wearing a white comb earring). The picture draws our attention, perhaps, to the long history of the hair of black Africans being represented as both “other” and exotic.

In conversation with Renée Mussai of Autograph (the Association of Black Photographers), the artist explained the use of objects, such as combs, in their work. “In Somnyama Ngonyama, I am using different materials that viewers can relate to if they take the time to read the images carefully and think about what these objects might mean.”

Muholi lays great emphasis on the viewer’s reading of their work. “I believe you don’t need to be aggressive, always in the viewer’s face,” they told Mussai.

“The situation is rough already. For instance, you might look at the latex gloves in [the photograph] Phila I, and think of balloons and play, rather than the constraints of work and domesticity, or the need to breathe, to feel deflated.”

THE Glasgow exhibition is, says the artist, the result of the “unflinchingly personal approach I have taken as a visual activist to confronting the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation through portraiture”.

Muholi has said that: “Photography for me is always first and foremost a tool of activism, driven by the idea of social change.” Their activist art has very often taken members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and non-binary communities in South Africa as its subjects.

The artist is deeply concerned with the ongoing oppression faced by people within that community – including themself – in the much-vaunted “rainbow nation” that is post-apartheid South Africa. By creating self-portraits that celebrate and focus proudly and defiantly on their own queerness, Muholi is seeking to address prejudice against LGBTQI+ people in contemporary South Africa and globally.

“In contrast to my life-long project of documenting members of my black LGBTI community in South Africa and beyond – one in which I normally have the privilege of witnessing participants’ presentation of themselves according to their own self-image – with this body of work, I have created portraits in which I am both participant and image-maker,” the artist explains.

For those who will visit the show at Glasgow University, Muholi offers a statement of purpose about their work: “You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.”

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama will show at the East Quad, University of Glasgow, October 1 to November 6: