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.
What have been the setbacks, and breakthroughs in the last decade?
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.
#3 What have been the setbacks, and breakthroughs in the past decade?
Despite campaigns for an enhanced social balance, the escalation of inequalities undoubtedly figures amongst the most worrying failures in recent years. I am neither a business sector specialist, nor of anything else for that matter, and so I could not know how to explain the mechanisms that have led to this disaster. However, at my level, when I look at the cultural programming of different institutions — whether they are public or private, for or not-for-profit — I note that the visibility of male productions remains much higher than that of women. So beyond the precariousness induced by an entirely globalised system, I think we may deplore the lack of expression of half the world’s population in the cultural landscape (whose role should, even if only partially, be devoted to promoting diversity). Fortunately, the current generation of artists are not all defeatists because becoming aware of this situation is often the impetus for many individual, and collective initiatives that save the day. For example, the multiplication of digital research and documentation platforms, or the organisation of projects oriented exclusively towards professional productions of all kinds — as a kind of affirmative action. Nevertheless, the recurrence of these types of proposals can lead to a ghettoization — participants would have no other relationship aside from a shared gender affiliation. This is not only sterile, but harmful in the long run.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Islamic radicalisation in some regions of Africa, has led to setbacks in women’s freedom and rights. With regards to breakthroughs, the number of women in entrepreneurial spheres has significantly increased. Women are slowly taking up roles in politics. In Rwanda, for instance, 63% of women are parliamentarians. And, there are seven women Heads of State in Africa, which is a breakthrough compared to Western countries.
More female artists have been included in biennales, group shows and publications. Today nobody would dare produce a project without a single female artist. But there is still a long way to go. I have the disturbing feeling that sometimes female artists are included based on their gender, and not because of what their work has to offer theoretically, conceptually, aesthetically and/or philosophically.
When will we stop considering them as “a minority group”? Half of the world’s population cannot be a minority. The greatest achievement is the increased number of female artists, curators and gallerists since the turn of the millennium. Today, young women know that they can be an artist, a curator or a cultural entrepreneur. They are jumping into visual arts fields. This is quite a breakthrough compared to the 20th century. When I started as an art publisher in the early 1990s there were much fewer female artists, and less than 10 female curators for an entire continent, the vast majority coming from South Africa.
Speaking from the perspective of London, where I live, I perceive huge (but still insufficient) breakthroughs for women artists.
Big cultural institutions like Tate Modern have both internationalised their collections and provided high-profile platforms for women artists (under the brilliant stewardship of the newly appointed Director Frances Morris). In 2013, for example, a wonderful exhibition of Ellen Gallagher coincided at Tate with the first retrospective of Lebanese modernist pioneer Saloua Raouda Choucair, while Julie Mehretu had a monumental solo show down the Thames at White Cube Gallery. These kinds of shows in metropolitan European centres indicate shifts in the art market, the globalisation of the contemporary, and the critical fortunes of selected practitioners. Even the generally conservative (when it comes to sexual politics or postcolonial consciousness) Pompidou (Paris) put on its one survey show of women, “Elles” in 2012, although it is hard to see this as anything other than tokenism when feminism is side-lined from ‘business as usual’ rather than integrated centrally into ongoing institutional strategy and policy. (And the showing of women of colour or from Africa was paltry, to say the least, in this iteration of the Pompidou’s unadventurous history of collecting. That was supposed to be redressed by a celebratory restaging of the controversial ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ soon afterwards).
The elevation of a few does not mean that the working conditions and support-fabric of the many is improved. In fact, the opposite may be true. There is an increasing gap in our unequal world between the successes of the selected ‘stars’ and the challenging conditions under which most artists work, far from the limelight and privileged circuits of cocktail parties and sponsored symposia. This is as true in Europe as it is in Africa. It takes extraordinary creativity and ingenuity to find local circuits for making and showing in communities and alternative centres. So, whilst we embrace and celebrate the successes, we should not be fooled into thinking that the lives and livelihoods of the majority of artists who work, across the globe, in challenging circumstances, are much improved or enhanced by these.
Euridice Getulio Kala
“We” are “I” – the acknowledgement of the “I am”
My personal artistic setbacks have perhaps been points of breakthrough; well, this can sound paradoxical, however, if I do not see it in this light, then, I would not continue on my journey towards a practice that has the potential of being recognised, as somewhat fulfilled or successful — whichever one prefers to hold on to.
I have had a chance to work in the arts industry for 4 years, and that is where most women tend to commence and establish a sense of themselves most times due to the lack of real opportunities and mentorship available to us from the time one concludes their studies. Also it is generally not clear for the family how to support their daughter, sister, and friend artist in making concrete the task of becoming independent.
A [black] woman for as much power as she carries, at least on the continent, has only just recently been able to demonstrate increasingly that she is able to care for herself, without the intervention of a partner or family.
So, perhaps we can find strides there, or we can see more now.
There are always setbacks, especially when we start succeeding in changing society. However, I am optimistic because the past decade has seen contributions of African feminist activism bearing fruit in many ways. African women creatives have been a vibrant part of that. From musicians like the late maverick Zanzibari musician Bi Kidude to South African Thandiswa who started an all-woman band, African women continue to shake things up! Ghanaian musician Azizaa recently released a video for her song Black Magic Woman where she critiques Christian evangelism, speaking back against harassment by young men evangelists and reclaiming African traditional religion. It is a rare voice of questioning in a context where charismatic Christianity — with all of its problematic gender norms and ideas — is dominating many African societies. Somali-Kenyan poet Warsan Shire has helped give meaning to the current refugee crisis in Europe, with a line from her poem “Home” used as part of Amnesty International’s campaign. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a global name with her treatise We should all be feminists sampled by Beyoncé and now being distributed to Swedish secondary school students. It is amazing to see how African women creatives are offering ways of understanding the texture and complexity of our lives and helping shape our collective imagination.
The breakthroughs have been the opening up of African contemporary art to the international community.
In the past decade there has been a large focus on contemporary African Art in and outside the continent, which has manifested in exhibitions, focused debates, and discussions. These have been phenomenal. But the problem I see is ghettoising it into a narrowly defined niche, thereby limiting its possibilities and denying the diversity that has historically been a part of the idea of Africa. We have to be conscious about how we frame the discourse about the continent, its art and artists, and the relationship of all this to the global art world. Questions like: What is African art?, Who is an African artist?, or the place of African artists who live and work outside the continent are important, but not because many institutions and individuals now invoke them in order to police the boundaries of this growing field.
We have had a couple of stalls on co-production agreements with other countries that could help increase the presence of international productions in Kenya. Our political instability and insecurity have pushed large productions slated to take place locally, into neighbouring countries and further south. Censorship of our own productions, and international platforms based on claims of the prevention of moral decay and terrorism in our country hinder the diversity of our content, and the maturing of our audiences.
Positively, there are more funding opportunities in, and outside Africa for our filmmakers. The interaction of art and film is being promoted on the continent, creating new opportunities to explore these visual media in creative ways. Steven Markowitz of Big World Cinema is currently developing Virtual Reality projects, with directors from different African countries. Through her organisation DocuBox Kenya, Judy Kibinge runs workshops and provides grants that have supported the production of several documentary films in East Africa – including the continued training and networking of local professionals.
Mónica de Miranda
In the last decades, most of the problems encountered by Black or migrant women artists in Europe or America, were mainly related to gender, and race.
In Africa, these issues are as much a past as a present reality; artists based in the continent nowadays face problems related to gender, economic and social inequalities that affect female artists and their artistic production. Regarding women evolving within the diaspora, although there is always a feeling of anxiety to define one’s place, the last three decades have seen a growing feminist postcolonial movement emerge in America, Europe and Africa, allowing for different points of view to be integrated and voiced out.
The past decade has been great for Angolan artists, both men and women. Thinking about female practitioners, the breakthrough would be the Ensa Art Prize 2014 won by Fineza Teta; it was the first time in a 20-year-old competition. The setback is a situation that is changing now, and that regards the master-apprentice systems set up by older artists to train younger artists that put many women aside.