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? 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, 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.
#5 Is there cooperation amongst women?
I willingly believe that women are able to develop remarkable complicity, as long as they accompany each other without slipping into rivalry — as this regularly happens in friendships. This suggests that the collaborations and partnerships that have the greatest chance of success relate more to mutual aid, as an assembly of distinct skills, rather than to the sharing (in the sense of a pure division) of similar resources, while the coveted gains are hardly parcelled. But to understand these shifts, it should be remembered that in cases of imminent danger, trade patterns in the professional world are not based on the same altruism or solidarity mechanisms. On the contrary, to reduce the risks of conflict, basic labour principles require fair remuneration in proportion to the invested energy.
On the other hand, leaning closer to the complexity of artistic networks, we can also finally admit that there is no theory applicable to the profession. The sector is both speculative and highly competitive; it is not surprising to witness the individualistic behaviours it causes at all levels, including the restricted circles of market influencers: galleries, major collections and museum curatorial departments, etc. While the feminisation of these spheres could give hope for significant progress regarding the consideration of women artists, one can be bewildered about their low admission in various institutions. Ultimately, this fact reveals that the choices made by women close to power spheres, tend to synch with those of their male counterparts, with a firm commitment to maintain the privileges where they already are. In this case, feminine cooperation would be an illusion.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Women have an innate sense of solidarity. Facing the same problems encourages them to join their forces to resolve them.
In general yes. Sisterhood is very tangible in Southern and Eastern Africa. Female artists from North Africa have been supporting each other for decades. Central Africa is waking up, and West Africa must wake up. There is less cooperation amongst female curators, and it might be because of the competition: too few opportunities for them to collaborate.
That is a difficult question. I think that this is variable. Sometimes women see their own advancement as being curtailed by being identified as such and refuse to be associated with their sisters, preferring to inhabit the category ‘human’ (as if the one precludes the other) or eschewing the fraught label of ‘feminist’ lest they be pigeonholed, or type cast. But there is huge strength in numbers — and in shared priorities and resources, and women in Africa have often made pacts in order to face injustice or address mutual concerns. I am reminded of the important women’s alliances in the anti-Apartheid movement or of various anti-colonial struggles, for example, the bare-breasted protests in Nigeria in the 1920s, and similar insurrections in Zambia and the Congo (to name only a few) in subsequent decades. Women co-operate in all sorts of ways — in sewing circles and farming co-operatives, in craft collectives and community centres, in family structures and social networks. But fine art is often perceived as a solitary endeavour and notions of individual genius and exceptional talent still permeate our discourses, and institutions. So we are more likely (in the contemporary art world) to hear of lone success stories than of the shared achievements that set out to advance the lot of women in general. Nevertheless, so many of these initiatives do exist and help to change lives and livings. In addition, what is absolutely crucial has been the rise of female curators in Africa. Many of the pioneering and groundbreaking curators who have emerged from the continent are women. I am thinking of stellar figures like Bisi Silva, Koyo Kouoh, N’Goné Fall or Gabi Ngcobo. For them, the visibility of women artists is key and they have worked to create shows that not only foreground women practitioners, but that provide a space for the articulation of feminocentric concerns – from sexuality to the maternal, and from women’s history to fabricated and fabulated futures in which women are no longer marginalised or silenced.
Euridice Getulio Kala
Reaching the top of the mountain is a very good sign
I will now refrain from using the term black when discussing women, I will assume a current demeanour that communicates my position now. Artists, curators, and other entities within what we call an industry, have a tough time collaborating; artistic practice is, and perhaps should be, a violently lonely pursuit. It is a pursuit for individual truth and enlightenment, which contributes towards possible changes in paradigms.
In a sense this may be paradoxical that I think women do collaborate, and unfortunately, we collaborate a lot.
What this does is that it prevents personal growth, it prevents us from getting completely lost in the dark, for we tend to have a group of other peers to rely on. I am not saying that we should not collaborate, what I am saying is that we should not be each other’s safe nets.
We can, and should, acknowledge the work, potential and abilities of other women and therefore engage in a sharing — that does not cripple our advancements — that, on the contrary, can challenge us to communicate better, and make our concepts visible in depth and reach. That does not have to be in unique moments, it could be recurrent or have the chance to morph as the relationship grows.
I have spent my whole life working with other women — as activists and as creatives. There is a tremendous tradition of African feminist solidarity and community making. In fact, some of the relationships that I have really do make real the idea of a ‘sisterhood’ — of people holding you in their hearts, and sustaining your soul. So there is most definitely cooperation amongst women, and many examples to show how this has helped support social change, and the creation of new ways of seeing the world.
There is definitely cooperation between women artists and supportive friendships. However, in the group of artists associated with the gallery, we have found equally supportive friendships and cooperation between male and female artists. The challenges of being an artist in Zimbabwe today make them all brothers and sisters in arms. This is the big unifying factor as I keep saying.
I think it is very important that women cooperate and support one another. Women must not allow the system to pit us against each other. We must come together, talk about our experiences in the workplace, strategise solutions, empower each other, and reclaim our own bodies. We also need to extend that support to artists of colour, and LGBT artists, because we are all affected and disenfranchised by the same system. We are operating in a system whose standards have been set to support men, not us, not humanity. We have to come together to advocate for new rules and standards that can help us all live up to our fullest potential; we need a system that emphasises our shared humanity rather than our differences.
Women have made a great difference to the independent filmmaking industry in Kenya. Several organisations run by women are operating in the city, funding productions (Ginger Inc.) and creating access to grants (DocuBox Kenya). Though, I have not had the impression that these organisations have been created specifically to benefit the female minority in the filmmaking industry. Both male and female filmmakers have been able to access the opportunities created.
It is possible that female filmmakers have access to grants at a higher rate than their proportion in the filmmaking industry, but I would not know for sure. Internationally, I do feel that there is an emphasis on increasing grant access to women filmmakers on the continent, due to the lack of content created by African Women in mainstream media. This, of course, has an effect on our independent productions.
Mónica de Miranda
Cooperation requires a community of people that can work together for common or mutual benefit. Generally, I feel there is great cooperation between the African diaspora living and working in Europe and America.
As for the art field, African female artists and curators from other regions than mine do cooperate, enabling artists to develop their careers internationally. However, in the Lusophone world, the community of female artists is not large enough to allow for such a cooperative system.
Recently, a minority of female curators and academics have started to appear in the Angolan art scene (a new trend that did not exist in past decades). This is a real step forward and development in terms of cultural production: these curators are much more sensitive to gender equality and are conscious of the need to include women in the shows they organise. Despite this, many group exhibitions presenting Lusophone artists still do not include women.
Yes, and given the lack of formal educational infrastructure, most female artists receive education through cooperative networks amongst women. However, these networks mostly promote practices traditionally associated with women (e.g. ceramics, textiles). Even as many female artists start working with painting, they encounter difficulty to create new visual languages.