In spring 2016, Another Africa launched In/Visible Voices of Women, a long-term publication project. Conceived by Clelia Coussonnet and Missla Libsekal, it focuses on women artists operating within Francophone and Lusophone Africa. Read more articles in the series here.
We asked 11 phenomenal women — intrepid academics, artists, writers, and curators — to join us for the 6-part Commentary Series of the ‘In/Visible Voices of Women’ project. By fleshing out a diverse terrain of thoughts and opinions, they name some of the most pressing concerns faced by women at large, and the states of being invisible, and becoming visible come to light.
#1 What are the most pressing issues facing women, and female practitioners today?
Women’s conditions vary considerably from one social structure to another; it would be indecent to place drama and suffering such as physical abuse, on par with struggles against discrimination in the professional field.
However, each of these situations reveals contempt, scarcity of recognition, and the lack of rights characterising archaic behaviours that women still face. Besides, even a mere look at gender stereotypes around women in the media, is enough to understand that our contemporaries’ eyes continue to feed on retrograde prejudices.
Inevitably, the persistence of these representations, lets so much arrogance pass into the admitted banalities of everyday life without ever provoking any questions. Not of the subservient structures, nor of the lack of will to reform these systems that protect potential predators. Similarly, several forms of harassment remain silenced. Perhaps this is due to feeling chagrined, or for lacking support, or even feeling fearful to jeopardise an environment that was always endangered from the start.
However, given the scale of male dominance, women must take charge of reducing the inequality, violence, injustices and insecurities they experience. Despite the lack of policy framework in the artistic sector (as in any other field), they should keep on being determined to get the legitimacy of their work recognised, and to access a status in accordance with their talents or skills.
It is by keeping in mind that they must first fight to improve their own environment, and following that, they will be able to free themselves and move forward serenely in both the professional, and private sphere.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Women still face many challenges related to gender, and often have to reconsider their own ambitions. The pressing issues today, relate to education and job opportunities. Women also face issues regarding violence and healthcare. In Africa specifically, the culture and social pressures (getting married, having a family) are significant barriers for women practitioners.
Visibility. In Africa, many of them stop practicing when they get married or have a child. It is as if it is impossible to be an artist, plus a wife, and a mother. In some countries, the social pressure is very high and women have to choose.
Opportunity. Female artists still have fewer opportunities (exhibition, residency, lecture, publication).
Perception. In some African countries, female artists are expected to produce decorative art (beauty) and the African audience gets confused if their work is too conceptual and/or minimalist. Western audiences (and to some extent Western art professionals) expect them to mainly explore women’s issues. The challenge is to break the cliché.
Freedom. Because of all this, it is not easy for female artists. Quite often, they have to justify what they do and why, they have to answer ridiculous questions no one would dare ask a male artist.
Visibility and audibility remain the most important challenges. We are still faced with countless public platforms and forums where women are invisible. I have been very encouraged by the Finnish feminist online initiative to ‘out’ ‘men only panels’ and to name and shame the participants. Let us do the same for exhibitions. I would start with the recent ‘Beauté Congo’ show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, which would lead you to believe that women in the Congo have only ever existed for breasts and booty, designed to titillate and stimulate a heteronormative sexual economy.
The absence of female producers is accompanied by the hypervisibility of women as sex objects, cyphers, allegories and phantasmatic projections. This version of history is produced by the questions posed and the inevitability (and predictability) of the justifications: there were no women ‘good enough’, ‘important enough’ or ‘visible enough’ to be included. If that is the case (and it is debatable) then the question is the wrong one. An expanded/self-critical look at the questions we pose can counter canonical teleologies and masked self-interest.
For me, the pressing issues facing artists, critics, writers and curators now is to address our histories differently so that the voices of women are no longer silenced, the archives are reconstituted to give space to women’s agency, and the way we ask questions of our history provides a space for a more inclusive embrace of what is out there, not only in the past, but today.
Euridice Getulio Kala
The Renaissance of the Black Woman, objectification and the Super (Uber) Woman
From Sarah Baartman to Lupita Nyong’o, the black woman has suffered throughout the ages a violent, and somewhat reductive representation in visual language. She has been portrayed mainly as an object of desire, of repulsion and somewhat for suppression(s). To research my answers, I have been watching lesbian porn, and have realised how much these “under-produced” movies connect to the above-mentioned articulation of the black body. The black woman as an ‘over woman’ and ‘uberwoman’  characterises the what and why — it is that so many black women’s voices have not featured in history from an author’s perspective, but rather from a subject-object position.
The black woman in particular, has not yet begun to author her narratives, as there is so much to demystify, which may also prevent her from doing so. This perhaps is an issue, or a hurdle to go over or under. I would like to actually suggest a complete bypass of the current exercise that women have to undergo to exist and practice today.
And through this bypass, forge a nihilistic language about herself that does not relate with the stereotypes by which the black [woman’s] body is represented, and acquires a new ubiquitous direction by resolving to participate in the conversation away from the victim role. In accepting the power, which in an abstract manner is attributed to the black woman, and by doing so moves towards a world where the manifestations of her actions have a completely new, and formulated language.
It is necessary to point out that a woman’s primary function was or is to open dimensions. Eve in this case was the curious one; she was the adventurer, the original rule breaker.
1. Uberman/Uberwoman may refer to Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Superman/Superman. Over Woman is my proposed higher female character who acknowledges her past features through a systematic bypassing of types that have been able progress through the struggle.
All issues that African women face come down to the same question of patriarchal power — put simply, the ordering of our lives and worlds in the collective interests of men. It is no surprise then that women creatives tend to get paid less than men, have less access to opportunities and can still be treated as if their technical skill is lesser. We have and will continue to challenge that — drawing on legacies of African women who rock this world!
To be honest, the same issues as face the male practitioners — being able to survive as an artist, access to materials, inadequate number of exhibition spaces, education gaps, and economically difficult times. These are the mountains, within which gender-based issues are molehills in my view.
Women-specific issues emerge out of these — we have lost women artists to marriage, because it offered economic security, other women artists have a difficult time convincing their family that their practice is just as important as any job and they have to work hard to stand their ground not to have chores imposed on them. Art is very much a male-dominated field in Zimbabwe, which does not always make for a socially optimal environment for women. Male artists can be aggressively competitive and we find that women artists take a lot longer to develop and take a lot more effort, support and encouragement to deliver the same quality work as male artists. It can be very frustrating, to know that you are working with people, who are going to be less reliable, make less progress. Do we persevere notwithstanding? Of course, because we get it. We also have the wonderful examples of Portia Zvavahera and Virginia Chihota, as star artists of the new generation, standing head and shoulders above many male contemporaries in terms of achievement and this kind of role modeling is very encouraging.
In the creative industry, women face issues ranging from disproportionate childcare and family responsibilities to the disparaging wage gap. Women are expected to seamlessly combine their personal and professional responsibilities, and are often held to workplace standards instituted by men. Gallerists and curators ask female artists questions they do not ask their male counterparts; questions about family, if they have children, how many, or if not if they plan to. Somehow the decision to have children or not is a gauge to measure the level of commitment one has to their career. To avoid discrimination, female artists are often very careful not to be perceived placing their family above career.
The gender wage gap is reflected in the difference between the prices of works by female and male artists; where female artists earn 1/3 of their male counterparts. This invariably tells the markets which gender they should pay more attention to, and is reflected in the number of female artists represented by gallery exhibits and museum collections. We can trace this back to the erasure and lack of acknowledgement of women in art historical texts. In the early 1970s, Linda Nochlin introduced the invisibility of women into the canon; and in the 1980s, the Guerilla Girls made gender disparity a central conversation in the art world.
The question today is the same as it was then. What is stopping female artists from being as valued as men?
Could it be because of curatorial interest that the average collector is male, or is it because of a fundamental disregard and inherited attitudes towards women’s creative output and value? I believe we need to reframe and expand the questions we ask concerning the issues of women in the arts. For a long time, our focus has been questions surrounding the symptoms rather than the root cause of this disparity.
As we continue to make arguments for gender pay equality, we must add to the litany, who benefits from this inequality? Who benefits from the discrimination of women in the workplace, in gallery shows and museums? Why are women still faced with the problem of balancing work and family? What can be done, what can society change in order to give women a more even playing field?
Since I work in film and animation as an independent filmmaker, I feel that the most pressing issue in general, is access to funding and grant bodies that support our work. This is true across the board whether one is female or male. Existing in a political environment that does not appreciate or promote art as a cultural practice that can enable us to achieve our developmental goals, ensures that our practices remain un(der)funded and we ourselves remain consumers of foreign brands and culture. This in turn prevents our products from gaining value within our own environment, and has a cyclic effect.
Mónica de Miranda
Today, in an expanded globalised world, many emerging women artists from developing countries face the pressure of working abroad – instead of in their country of origin — to engage fully in their professional activities, and access the international art network more easily. Yet only a minority manages to leave their country.
The Lusophone world lacks an art market, so following an artistic path is extremely difficult . . . in the Lusophone context, there are very few women artists living in their country of origin; if they do, they often give up their practice or end up doing more commercial work. The ones that find the way to go abroad face dynamics linked to migration or diaspora processes of adaptation, exclusion or assimilation. In the process of economic struggle and raising children, they often give up their artistic practice. Also, to achieve mobility for their work and recognition, they are expected to be able to travel to attend exhibitions.
These can be pressing issues faced by women artists that have children and family responsibilities.
Being an artist from the African diaspora is different from being an artist based on the continent. In my case, as a member of the diaspora with a European passport, I am allowed more opportunities in terms of mobility, citizen rights and even cultural exchange — opportunities that artists with an African passport might not be offered. Navigating between two cultural realities has facilitated my integration process, yet it also created a duality: I am never African or European enough. As a result, sometimes, curators do not know how to ‘situate’ me. In the last decade, voices from the African diaspora have benefited from more flexibility to be integrated.
I think in Angola the most pressing issues are the lack of formal art education, although this has been changing in the past couple years, and that most female artists’ work is considered as some form of handcraft rather than art. This has to do with several aspects: from materials and aesthetics to language used, but also with the social place assigned to women and how they negotiate that space. Indeed, the truth is that, for me, the most pressing issues female artists have to deal with have nothing to do with the artworld but with society as a whole. Angola is an extremely paternalist society, and one where there is no open political difference. It is a society of silence and fear, and the social place of women is a political subject with consequences as deep as the family structure.