It has been said that artistry in Africa is an intrinsic part of life rather than a commercial or careerist enterprise. I’d say that this notion is not only applicable to African art, all across the world art has explored the sensitivities of life and the social environment.
However, it is in this process of examining life and society through art, that African women artists are prone to, wittingly or unwittingly, explore concepts of feminism.
Feminism in an African perspective
Let me explain. Whether African women’s art is feminist in nature has not necessarily to do with whether African female artists identify as feminist, but rather with the way that their art might be interpreted. Think about it: what do you feel when you observe a piece by Wangechi Mutu, Otobong Nkanga, Lalla Essaidy, Peju Alatise, Suzanne Ouedraogo, Tracey Rose, Zanele Muholi or Michelle Magema? What story of womanhood do their brushes paint and their lenses and hands sculpt?
Also, to understand the feminist nature of African women’s art requires that we shy away from the narrow understanding of feminism as an “unAfrican” framework. Rather, and simply defined for the purpose of this post, feminism is resistance to patriarchy.
The question thus becomes, to what extent does African women’s art stand up to the patriarchal paradigm?
It should be noted that to challenge age-old patriarchal establishments in African societies can be a risk resulting (at best) in social exclusion. It takes courage to challenge, for example, practices such as FGM or the institution of marriage, which is *yawn* seen as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. Tensions between men and women as well as between race and ethnicity are depicted by artists who are willing to produce not only aesthetically compelling but also socially pressing work. Regardless of criticisms that may be directed at them.
And yet, as Zimbabwean writer and “shero” Yvonne Vera might say, African female artists continue to produce art in which they take upon themselves the role of the confident historian, the adept raconteur and the griot whom silence will not swallow.
I agree. Well, I should do since those are my words (sort of). I am under the intoxication of reading Vera.
The artist as witness
African women artists create art which reminds you what it is to be a woman not a striking sexual object so often – sure, brilliantly – illustrated by African male artists, but a woman-being in all her contradictory nuance; vulnerable, afraid, beautiful, ugly, delicate, crude, angry, oppressed, complacent, defiant, sorrowful and empowered.
Most of all, in the art of a multitude of African women there is a voice that shares a quality of telling what it has witnessed – the good and the bad. It is an unapologetic voice. It is a tired but yet tireless voice. It is a voice that cherishes its source. It is a voice that is screaming at the top of its chords that it must be heard, that it mustn’t be silenced. It is, a feminist voice.
Over to you, what do you think -is African women’s art feminist? Should art have a message or should it simply be visually pleasing? What kind of art do you like? Favourite female artist? Let’s discuss.