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.
What is holding back the agency of women today? Can we name the forces erasing or hampering women’s full participation in public life? However complex or varied the issues at hand may be, there is an urgency to reclaim spaces, address our histories differently, and open up dimensions.
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.
#2 Are there still places and spaces where women are not welcome? and in which domains are they behind?
It is often said that women are fragile. Certainly, one cannot refute their vulnerability facing the excessive misogynist and paternalistic reflexes at work in the vast majority of contemporary societies. But these feelings, unfortunately, also serve to condone arbitrary judgments and choices in the professional sphere, without any genuine consideration of women’s physical or mental abilities. In the end, when we observe gender distribution amongst several industries, we soon realise that most positions of power and responsibility are still monopolised by men — presumably to ensure more efficiently traditional domination structures. In other words, women are maintained in a status of second-class citizens, excluded from the circle of decision-makers. The positions they are given mutate slowly, despite the coercive affirmative action implemented by some democracies such as France. When the most strategic areas like economic development or diplomatic relations are entrusted to men, women are often content with watching over children or the elderly. Everything is orchestrated to confine them to roles that have little impact on the systems of trade and large-scale organisation, in perfect keeping with the most backward domestic schemes. Yet, to my knowledge, there is no irrefutable evidence or scientific study proving that women are more incompetent than men on one level or another, especially with regard to intellect skills. Finally, in order to remain optimistic on the division of tasks and spaces, and to address better the crises that develop around the world, it is first necessary to change mentalities of the two genders as they are both lagging behind.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Yes; there are spaces/places such as education where women are still considerably behind. Education is a basic need, yet it is still not accessible to women in many African countries. As for higher education, there are still very few women in the domains of research, science and technology. Women should also be more represented in decision-making positions in politics, as well as in executive management positions. Actually, since women are known as problem-solvers and contribute to building a safer and more sustainable world, it would make sense to involve them more in decision-making in all domains.
I think nobody would dare exclude them; we are in 2016. They are doing fine in the fields of hairstyle, fashion, literature, and music, but in the visual arts they are behind male artists. There are more male than female artists practicing, but the ratio is changing, especially in Southern and East Africa. French-speaking African countries are still lagging behind. If you look at art institutions, women are well represented, but not in positions of power, and decision-making roles. They are assistants, in charge of logistics, of communication, of public programmes, or of community outreach. In the West, very few women are museum directors or chief curators, and hardly none of them in Africa. In Africa, women are very visible as curators, directors of galleries, and directors of independent art spaces that they started themselves.
Women often remain perceived as trouble-makers and kill joys spoiling the party of ‘quality’, ‘coherence’ and ‘significance’ that much curatorial and critical practice constructs. One still feels shrill and overly insistent when one points out the lack of female presence in an exhibition or insists on a feminist reading of a high-profile show or argument. And old models of priapic, masculine genius remain very powerful in the art world, despite the obvious success (both critical and commercial) of individual women artists. But the question is very space/context specific and it is hard to generalise. The global art world is like a country in itself, with its own rules and languages, and here individual women can really triumph, even if the numbers remain skewed towards men, and the specific markets that promote them. But if you go to Algeria or Zimbabwe, to Mali or Egypt, you will find unique social, economic and cultural parameters that men and women negotiate and where gender may matter a great deal in relation to access to education, exhibition and self-construction. It is by no means a monolith.
Euridice Getulio Kala
Negotiating the Inhabited Universe – gender, sexuality
For ages, in the Western world, the black woman has been represented negatively. It does not help that she continues to be objectified in popular media in an effort to reduce the experience of being a woman, to a contemporary socio-construct.
Today for many young [black] women practitioners, to even have a chance to practice in this “man’s world”, they have to go through a series of shows and exhibitions that have the sole intention of highlighting, how few the opportunities are for us to exist. And, if for some reason some of us make it into becoming, then a series of not so clear deals are offered disguised as opportunities; it starts to move us away from this sisterhood space/place.
There is surely nothing wrong with sisterhood. However, if it starts to represent a lack instead of subsiding the current testosterone-filled environment of the arts, then that is rather fallacious and it should not be supported. This is almost equivalent to the UN’s programmes. Those designed for young African girls constructed with the message to keep them from not leaving school by focusing on teenage pregnancy, and that are bizarrely funded. For instance, I would not be eligible coming from a middle-class upbringing.
These concepts mentioned are very restrained, and make making visible ‘the other’ rather the norm, and even imaginaries of both worlds where we see sexuality and gender being discussed, and being made visible. We also see a sexuality that reduces a feminine experience emanating from women’s emotive language, ergo nothing that comments on the other possible dimensions, concepts or ideas has the space it requires to expand, and to obliterate the current.
If I write that I have had sexual relations with more than 20 people in my lifetime, that will be deemed negatively — as promiscuous, but how is one supposed to deal, gauge, question, repair, their sexuality? Is it by negating it? By oppressing it with religious belief systems (most of them brought upon us in traumatic circumstances)? The black woman, has never had a chance to be promiscuous without the objectification of her body. Eve, as the bible counts, only realised that she needed to cover her body, after the revolutionary action of eating the forbidden fruit — or forbidden truth.
Social relations are dynamic — as human beings we make society, and we also constantly resist the oppressions and limitation society places on us and affirm different ways of being. There are always spaces of subversion and victories in creating new forms of expression and living in different ways. The truth is that — for the most part — women still have to fight for space to be themselves.
It is still ‘easier’ to be a woman artist if you remain within ideas of what is acceptable for women to do. It is accepted for a woman to be a demure, sexualised singer, for example, to dance elegantly, to be an actor — but not a director. There is still bias around work considered ‘men’s arts’ and expressions — like working with metal, expressing rage and anger, and overseeing artistic processes. I remember a Nigerian woman sculptor speaking about how the men in her sculpture class in arts school doubted her capacity to do the heavy lifting
required of sculpting clay and casting metal. The reality was that she could carry more clay than they could from the river! Today though, it feels as if we have and are doing everything as African women. Name an endeavour — and you will find an African woman doing it. I am fascinated by the way that African feminist creatives and activists have embraced the Internet. It has almost been a leveller, as the only gatekeeper online is your ability to access an Internet service and your knowledge of how to create digital content, and upload it. On Twitter for example, African feminists have created the #afrifem hashtag which connects and helps amplify African feminist thinking and expression online. Online subcultures have developed around African women’s creative expression — so it is now easier to build an audience, generate discussion and engagement, and find out about new work.
Zimbabwe is by general standards quite an open and liberal society. It is also a very tolerant one, notwithstanding general conservative tendencies due to the predominance of Christianity. It is not a case of women not being welcome but rather a moral code, which says that decent women do not go to bars and nightclubs, but rather to church. Women traditionally have rather boisterous social lives but in women-only environments.
Yes, there are still places and spaces in society where women cannot enter. These may stem from cultural and societal institutions of the past which place expectations on the role of women. I think in order to move forward we must carve our own unique path while being inspired by how others have tackled their problems.
Again, I can only speak from my own experiences. Being part of an industry that is extremely tech-focused can alienate women practitioners, who are, from the get go, moulded to more craft-based learning. Animation is not a traditional career path in Kenya, and I myself come from a traditional arts background, and address my projects from this angle. This, I feel, sets me apart from the more mainstream avenues of commercial animation, such as advertising. However, I think this depends on the interest of the practitioner, and what their goals are. Most of us mould our practice to supply the local demand, and those of us who do not, have to do so knowing that the financial returns on their work may not be as fulfilling. The long-term results of these decisions are not yet known, as our industry is still very young. The majority of the women I know within the local film production industry, work as editors and producers. Animation, directing and cinematography are fields that have a very low percentage of women. I think this is related to the perceived technicality of these fields, as well as the relative financial stability of those areas more populated by women.
Mónica de Miranda
In Lusophone Africa, there is still a daunting man-oriented art business going on, women are not so emancipated, and a feminist movement that would open the art environment is still to come. However, I think the problem nowadays is not so much being a woman, but being a woman that is a mother. There are social pressures for women with children to settle down, hence their lives are not compatible with the artist mode of life. For instance, there are many recognised art institutions which do not allow women to participate in their residencies programmes with their children. As a single mother, I get cut out from all of these spaces of creation, and art circulation. Sometimes it seems that you have to be childless to be part of it. Also, as a mother, my mobility has been reduced as I cannot always travel with my daughter to attend exhibitions, festivals and biennales. Most of the art circuits are not so children-friendly.
No, I would not say that. There are women represented in most domains of public life in Angola, though that does not necessarily mean equal treatment or representation.
There has been progress, with a greater concern shown by the government on women’s issues. However, according to UNDP  “gender considerations are systematically inadequately taken into account in decision-making at all levels. Government programmes and policies have failed to address gender issues properly. As a result, the actual situation of women in Angola is difficult due to general poverty and patriarchal norms. Indicators of women’s representation in the social and public sphere are still low. Female work is concentrated in lower posts and in the informal sector. Poverty and illiteracy affects mostly women. Gender-based violence is widespread in the country”. And, women are mostly still behind in the contemporary art scene.
 “Promoting Angolan Women´s Empowerment through CSOs.” UNDP in Angola. N.p., n.d.