The visibility of contemporary African women artists

Zimbabwean photographer, Nancy Mteki: "If we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else is going to do it."

The artist Nancy Mteki. Screenshot of Youtube interview by POVO Africa.

Much has been written recently about the proliferation of “The Africa Issue” amongst many contemporary art publications and journals. True to form, last week saw the launch of the latest volume of feminist art journal n.paradoxa at London gallery Tiwani Contemporary. And the volume’s theme? “Africa and its Diasporas.” Katy Deepwell, n.paradoxa editor, is not unaware of the problems with a regional issue. She pre-empted criticism in her opening remarks which were disparaging of “token” Africa issues of journals and magazines followed by a closure of the debate. She published this volume despite misgivings, she said, because there is “too much good work being done” by doubly-underrepresented female African artists. Volume 31 of n.paradoxa sets out to bring the practices of these women artists into the critical discourse, and to kick-start further discussion in the publication and elsewhere.

It remains to be seen if Deepwell and her contributors will succeed in that aim. This volume is certainly an ambitious start, ranging across media and regions, if a little heavy on the diaspora. Bisi Silva, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, wrote the guest editorial. She asks whether the proliferation of independent art organizations spearheaded by women (like Nubuke Foundation, Ker Thiossane, Raw Material, Nike Art Gallery, Terra Kulture, Doual’Art and Silva’s CCA) has ‘impacted significantly on the presentation, documentation and the visibility of women’s artistic practice on the continent’. The answer seems to be — not really. Running through the articles, though, is an exploration of how women artists are organizing and representing themselves to change that.

One of the stand-out artists at the London launch event was Zimbabwean photographer Nancy Mteki (whose work AIAC featured here). In 2011 Mteki co-founded the Zimbabwe Association of Female Photographers to support women artists and photojournalists to work, train and exhibit. When asked about the motivations behind the project, she said simply: “If we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else is going to do it.”

Wura Natasha Ogunji, “He visioned songbirds” (2007).

A piece by Peju Layiwola (Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos) surveys local initiatives that are redressing the dearth of critical engagement with Nigerian women artists. There are collaborations with diasporic Nigerians like the show “All We Ever Wanted” or the projects of Wura Natasha Ogunji. Silva supports female artists in her curation at CCA. Most interesting, though, is how “a few have ruptured the highly hierarchical and patriarchal space of the Nigerian art world by having their work displayed in public spaces.” The few include sculptor Chris Funke Ifeta whose works were mounted in the town centre of Benin City.

Ato Malinda, “Is Free Dumb” (2010) Photograph James Muriuki

One of the most powerful ways that the women showcased here are making themselves visible in the public sphere is through performance. Kenyan Ato Malinda’s performance Is Free Dumb saw her sat in a cage outside the National Archives in Nairobi reading aloud from DRUM, True Love, and African Woman. Within half an hour she was attracting attention from security guards and was subsequently arrested for ‘conducting a business without a permit.’ She writes: “Women do not claim space on the streets of Nairobi and when this is attempted, it is thwarted, often through violence…the ironic revocation of my own freedom accentuates the conservative nature of female liberties in Kenya.”

South African Donna Kukuma uses performance as an explicitly feminist strategy in her work; she tells curator Nontobeko Ntombela: “I use performance as a medium of resistance against already established ‘ways of doing’…as a strategy for inserting a foreign ‘other’ voice and presence into various territories of the republic.”

The site of performance is significant. In The Swing (After After Fragonard) (2009) Kukama, dressed in white, sits on a swing suspended from the overpass above Mai Mai Market, Johannesburg.

“The value of the space is because not so far from there is the Maboneng precinct which is the new developed bush for the arts, that is insanely removed from its surrounding…A women entering this space in a mini skirt would be violently harassed, yet not so far from that space in Maboneng people are walking around those streets freely in their miniskirts…unaware of the realities of a space not so far from there.”

In the UK, the vexed questions of categorisation and the relationship of ‘African’ artists to the international scene are talking points once more as the Tate launches its new Africa programme. Collier, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has mixed feelings about the initiative; she speaks for many when she says: “The really exciting work going on in Africa does not give itself over to commodification easily.” If nothing else, this particular ‘Africa Issue’ shows that is certainly true of some of the continent’s most innovative female artists.

  • n.paradoxa is available in print and electronic format from KT Press.

Further Reading

What’s happening in South Africa?

After unrest in July and municipal elections in November, it’s clear South Africa is in the midst of a serious social, economic and political crisis. What are the roots of it? Listen to this episode of AIAC Talk to find out.