The Soapbox

Online forum on issues of women and gender in the arts of Africa

Women’s Leadership Centre | Creating ourselves in our own images

A photography exhibition titled Creating ourselves in our own image is currently on display at the Goethe Centre in Windhoek in celebration of International Human Rights Day and Namibian Women’s Day. This exhibition portrays the lives, challenges, aspirations and dreams of young lesbian women in Namibia, including intimate personal moments and public political statements.

WLC - Lesbian wedding (2013)

Produced by the Women’s Leadership Centre, this exhibition was developed together with the many young lesbian women across Namibia who participated in the Building Feminist Lesbian Leadership Programme of the WLC. During 2013 this programme focussed on strengthening the resilience and resistance of young lesbian women to homophobic stigma and discrimination, violence and the risk of HIV and Aids. In deepening their understanding of human rights and women’s rights, participants were empowered to claim and assert their right to dignity, respect, bodily integrity, autonomy and choice.

WLC - Soccer (2013)

Through various art forms, participants were able to increase their self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-expression, pride, voice, visibility, leadership and citizenship as young lesbian women in Namibia. Together, they created new ways of being a young lesbian, and used writing, photography and other forms of creative expression. Through this project, young lesbians further took the lead in their towns and villages to share human rights knowledge and ways of protecting themselves from stigma, discrimination, violence, HIV and Aids. They showed their faces in advocating for their collective rights.

WLC - Crown of thorns (2013)

Two booklets were also produced collaboratively through this project: one for young lesbian women titled Being Ourselves! Being Resilient! and one for their parents, families and friends titled Loving and Supporting our Lesbian Daughters. The WLC will travel to various towns in Namibia in 2014 with this exhibition and the booklets, conducting workshops on women’s rights/human rights for young lesbian women and their families.

32° East & Makerere University | Uganda’s female creatives

32º East, Orange and Makerere University have joined forces to document and give exposure to Uganda’s leading female artists. The Soapbox gladly presents the artists’ short statements about their art and ambitions. This is part one with Maria Naita, Stella Atal, Amanda Tumusiime and Rose Kirumira:

The second part features Sheila Nakitende, Lyton Hillary, Helen Nabukenya and Dr. Venny Nakazibwe:

And here’s the third part with Violet Nantume, Robinah Nansubuga, Margaret Nagawa, Lillian Mary Nabulime:

32º East is a supportive network for contemporary visual art in Uganda and is working with a team of partners to raise the profile of Ugandan art to a national and international level.

Milumbe Haimbe | Ananiya

Talk with Zambian artist Milumbe Haimbe on her recent work …

The Soapbox: Dear Milumbe, it’s exciting to learn about your new comic book project and your according research. You’ve told us that you came across some graphic novels from the African continent that were of interest for your work. Could you specify the authors or protagonists for our audience? What kind of heroes and heroines appear in these novels?

Milumbe Haimbe: Aya de Yopougon comes to mind, by Ivorian author, Marguerite Abouet. It is set in Ivory Coast in 1978 and features the adventures of Aya, a rather studious 19-year-old girl and her friends Adjoua and Bintou, as well as their nosey relatives and neighbours. Another interesting one is June 12. The struggle for power in Nigeria by Abraham Oshoko. It chronicles the political upheavals that transpired during and after the elections held in Nigeria on June 12th 1993 after a decade of military rule, and of course the story is dramatized with some fiction and hearsay. There are a couple of other graphic novels that I have come across, but these are still works in progress and it may be too soon for me to go on record mentioning them.

TS: You said that you would like to “interact with the cultural gap” of lacking representations of Black female characters in contemporary graphic novels. I remember the examples you presented at the Refiguring Women workshop in Johannesburg in 2012 that were exposing a shocking setback in the illustration of women in this genre. In contrast to the emancipatory trends of the 1970s they are now again depicted as villains, vampires and sex objects. What’s your approach to challenge that?

MH: On the one hand we have the stereotypical – if I may venture to say – objectified representation of women in general in a lot of popular media, and on the other hand we have black, female characters in specific that are practically invisible within these genres. Either way, there’s a danger that this limited view starts to paint a constrained portrait of what a woman should look like and how she should act to the negation of alternative experiences of womanhood. I set my graphic novel in a not-so-distant future, which is dominated by a cult-like corporation. Social conformity in the interest of the collective is subliminally enforced through symbolisms and iconology while the economy is purely corporate-driven. Robots are created for sexual gratification and in this new world order human-women have gradually become obsolete. Then news spreads that the Corporation is developing a prototype robot that is so advanced that it is quite impossible to tell it apart from a human-woman. This is the point of departure in the graphic novel as it gives rise to the resistance, calling itself the “Army for the Restoration of Womanhood”. By portraying this resistance as a collection of both men and women, but mostly kick-ass women of various colours, shapes, sizes and temperaments, I am attempting to challenge that negative and stereotypical depiction of women as villains, vampires and sex objects. As far as interacting – within the framework of this project – with the cultural gap of lacking representations of black female, characters, I actually position a young, black, female character as the focus of the resistance.

TS: Could you tell us more about your novel as a diversity project? Is it linked to any social projects in Zambia or elsewhere?

MH: I call it a diversity project because the characters and situations represented in the graphic novel are eclectic and otherworldly, which I hope opens it up to folks of different strokes in terms of ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality. I am projecting forward to a time when whom we love or what truths we choose to believe in are a non-issue, regardless of whether we are straight, bi, gay, lesbian, queer, transsexual or gender-unidentified, wherever we happen to live whether it is in Europe, North and Latin America, Asia or Africa. The protagonist in my graphic novel grapples with her sexuality not because she is falling in love with someone of the same sex, but because her object of desire is a robot which goes against her core principles as a member of the resistance. This project is not linked to any particular social project in Zambia or elsewhere at the moment. I tend to think that the issues it discusses have a relevance that is far-reaching so I am open to forging links with other social projects.

TS: Thank you very much especially for allowing us a glimpse of your work in progress on Ananiya. We can’t wait for more …

N’Goné Fall | Providing a space of freedom

Interview with curator and art critic N’Goné Fall on the situation of women artists from Africa …

The Soapbox: In your article for Global Feminisms from 2007 you wrote about the role of women still being restricted after most African states achieved independence in the 1960’s. How did women perceive this phase? Have there been women who were disappointed about the continuation of their roles? What about women in Dakar, for example?

N’Goné Fall: Well, some were frustrated, others “trained to be a perfect mother and wife” accepted their position in the society. Things started to change in the mid 1970s and early 1980s with the modernization of cities and new life style. Some women had a job (after having a high education at university), financial independence, access to Western theories and started questioning their own society. It started with writers mainly and at large we could say with women intellectuals. And it all happened in big cities, mainly in the capitals. In Dakar, the first “hit” was the novel Une si longue lettre by Mariama Bâ. The book is still a landmark in Senegal. But in the visual arts world nothing really changed as the few women who were practicing art were involved in decorative things.

Please note that I am talking about a continent. Yet, some countries – Egypt and South Africa, for example – had a feminist movement and women artists with clear positions.

TS: Addressing silence and invisible struggles of women in the African context in contrast to feminist movements in Europe and the U.S. is still crucial. How do you reflect different artistic strategies of visibility in this respect in the work of Bill Kouélany, for example, or, more recently, Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande?

NF: Bill Kouélani does not see herself as a feminist even if she is a though women and the only female artist known from Congo. Her work is very strong, deals with various issues but she does not have “an activist strategy”. For sure, Zanele Muholi is an activist as a person and as an artist. All her work is about the place of gays, lesbians and transgender people in the South African society. And it did help raise, debate and advance the case of minorities in her country and abroad. The photographs do not let any space for misinterpretation: it is about sex and gender, love and life.

The work of Mary Sibande is less obviously activist at a first look. But it is definitively about racial and social classes as well as about the position of women in the South African society. Some people would see it as nice and poetic dreams of a black woman. But there is no doubt that her work is about race, gender and the social position of minorities in her country.

TS: Several female artists from the African continent seem to work in a difficult space between asserting their culture against stereotyping or hegemonic interpretations and coming to grips with gendered restrictions of exactly these cultural structures as, for example, Zineb Sedira. Artistically, the exposure to this double ‘forefront’ produces important statements on the ambivalent nature of women’s situation. Could you specify to what extent these statements enlarge the “space of freedom” for women you are writing about without being “seduced by global discourses”?

NF: The younger generation of women artists from Africa is aware of the “game in the global art world”. They are also aware that being from Africa can sometimes open doors and offer opportunities as institutions want to be truly international and inclusive. Some of these artists have a double culture with parents from one continent and themselves from another one. They all decided not to play the victim card but rather to embrace their multiple cultures and look at the world from various perspectives and reference points. Their works are often refreshing, questioning societies and have sometimes different meanings. They all benefited from the achievement of feminist struggles, travel quite a lot and are open to multiple cultures. Their works are about the world today, about the local and the global, about societies. And they do not only focus on women issues to highlight the cause of women. Very clever strategy.

TS: Thank you very much, dear N’Goné, for taking the time to give us this overview.

Literature: N’Goné Fall (2007): “Providing a space of freedom. Women artists from Africa“, in: Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin (eds.), Global feminisms. New directions in contemporary art, London, Merrell Publishers.

Usha Seejarim | Venus at home

Interview with South African artist Usha Seejarim on her exhibition Venus at home at the Johannesburg Art Gallery 10.02.-12.05.2013 …

Usha Seejarim - Triangle (2012)

The Soapbox: You describe your exhibition as an exploration of “two distinctly female roles”, namely your role as housewife or mother and artist. How would you describe your artistic strategy? Does it consolidate and celebrate these roles in revealing their creative potential or does it break with traditional ascriptions?

Usha Seejarim: It is definitely a celebration and consolidation of these two roles, hence the artworks created from domestic materials. The sculptures and installations are very playful and have a definite sense of humour. The two roles are enmeshed in my life, particularly since my children are physically within my studio space. So it is not uncommon to find a teddy bear next to the welding machine, a packet of diapers on top of my paper drawer or some of my kid’s drawings amongst my drawings. Given this juggle, it seems somewhat inevitable that such a body of work should manifest. One of the artistic strategies explored is the expression of a life strategy that I have adopted, which involves not only an acceptance but finding a sense of joy and inspiration in mundane, everyday tasks and chores. This is something that I have been fascinated with for a very long time, and it is increasingly surfacing in my work as a consistent element.

Usha Seejarim - United by stitches (2012)

TS: When and why has your fascination with household products started? How did you discover their sculptural and aesthetic quality?

US: This fascination is not so much with household products as it is with the act of the everyday. It is the “unconscious” daily movements and activities that we perform that intrigues me. We all have a daily routine that we perform, and within this is an interaction with a number of objects whose value, aesthetic, function and meaning we completely take for granted. And by using these objects as material for artworks, there is an immediate elevation of their status as “ordinary” objects. This juxtaposition of familiarity and new configuration thereof is what enthralls me. The discovery of these object’s sculptural and aesthetic qualities became apparent through the sheer exploration of them as either artworks or material for artworks. After deciding what materials I would like to work with, I collect them and then go through a process of play. I configure them in different ways until there is an absolute knowledge that there is something magical happening here.

Usha Seejarim - Three sisters in law (2012)

TS: We are especially interested in dynamics of art reception. Friends and neighbours donated the goods for your sculptures. Can you tell us about how they have reacted to the transformation of their donations?

US: The response to my request was overwhelming. I received a phone call, for example, from an elderly woman who received an email from someone I don’t know and said that she had one very broken broom to donate, she has no transport to get to me and would really like her broom to be included in my artwork. I was equally curious about the response to their transformation as many of these donors are not so familiar with contemporary and conceptual art. My expectation of their expectation was one of something pretty and traditionally beautiful. While it was clear that the work was beyond anything they could have expected, they seem to enjoy the work. Many were excitedly identifying their particular materials within the installations and the overall feedback has been positive. Many spoke of the familiarity of the domestic and their ability to relate to the work. Most of the donors and other individuals get the humour in the work and offer their own insightful interpretation.

TS: Thank you, Usha, for sharing your approach.

Amanda Tumusiime | Art and gender

In her dissertational thesis Art and gender. Imag[in]ing the new woman in contemporary Ugandan art Amanda Tumusiime has investigated the tendency in Ugandan art to define and construct men and women in such a way as to match them with patriarchal confines. In the complex Ugandan society the character of women is described on the basis of two categories, the good woman and the bad woman. This categorisation defines the good woman as the one who stays at home and resides in the countryside and the bad woman as the one who stays in an urban environment and works in a public space.

The bad woman theme tends to hold vast possibilities. Titles such as Prostitutes, Gold Diggers, Vectors of HIV-AIDS, and Striptease are common. Musangogwantamu, for instance, claims that urban women are materialistic and are full of lust. Francis Ifee who was a student of Musango’s in the 1980s and currently a lecturer portrays modern women as prostitutes, and Godfrey Banadda with his Dare to touch (2009) constructs women as vectors of HIV-AIDS.

Angelo Kakande - Tamed (1993)

John Bosco Kanuge - The protector (1998)

Female artists, such as Lillian Nabulime, Rebeeca Bisaso, Maria Naita and Alex Baine, have taken up themes that emancipate women, for example works such as Women’s emancipation of women (1989). And as if to respond to the domineering conceit of patriarchy, Nabulime amplifies her attack on machismo in Man and Sebbo (2011). Man is presented as a half a man, half a woman. According to the artist man is curved that way to show that he is less of a man. Sebbo is a Luganda word which literally means ‘sir’. Nabulime argues that the sculpture Sebbo reflects a “patriarchal society we live in. Men are dominant and usually take control of decisions. They give an impression of fearless, aggressive, powerful prestige, yet it may not be the case” (Nabulime 2011: 16). Some female musicians have made similar remarks. For instance, Titi Tendo, a female artiste, came up with a song called Selwanga, which literally means a cock which does not crow. In Uganda the debate on gender perspectives in contemporary art is new and opens up vast possibilities.

Godfrey Banadda - Dare to touch (2009)

Lillian Nabulime - Sebbo (2011)

IngridRobertMwangiHutter | Headskin

Looking back in time from the vantage point of the present, I can see that there have been many different phases in my life, which brought out certain manifestations of my being. There were times in which it was important to position myself rather strongly as a woman, then as a Kenyan, an African, an artist, who works with new artistic media, and so on. All those moments arose as necessary reactions, in dialogue with the environment I found myself in.

Over the last years it has clearly been especially interesting to become one artist body incorporating and expressing multiple perspectives. Recognizing my self as the merged identity of IngridMwangiRobertHutter seems to be an efficient way to relate to as well as address the world I live in. It proves both challenging and exciting to create a single evolving body of work. In this process, I discover that all things converge to a simple truth: we perceive ourselves to be very separate from everything else when, in fact, we are not. A sense of disjointedness prevails that prevents the bigger picture. So we can speak about ‘us‘ and ‘others‘, whatever the conceptualized grouping, as if they are indeed different entities existing in their own right. The danger is to remain forever apart in that exercise and never grow up.

IngridRobertMwangiHutter - Headskin (2005)

IngridRobertMwangiHutter - Headskin (2005)

IngridRobertMwangiHutter - Headskin (2005)

IngridRobertMwangiHutter - Headskin (2005)

My proposition is that differences should be acknowledged but not over-interpreted. Naturally, they need to enrich us rather than engender estrangement. And they ought to be discussed, bridged, adapted and transformed. We cannot afford to get stuck in complacent justifications, oversimplifications or fixations. I try to be aware of being part of an evolving process.

Claudine Pommier | The power of art

Claudine Pommier, a Canadian filmmaker and visual artist, had the opportunity to work in several African countries with local artists, various workshops and public projects. Concerning her film The power of art she writes: “this eventually gave me the desire to present to others what’s happening in the contemporary art scene in Africa. I plunged into the documentary film medium and did just that.

Then another point became clear to me. Whenever I was working with African artists on various projects, I found that I was basically the only woman doing so. I found this a bit intriguing and decided to go look for the women involved in the art field. Unfortunately, it was impossible to include them all, and tough editing decisions had to be made. I can only comment positively on the making of this film. Of course, travelling through the continent is a bit of a challenge, but it is part of the fun. Researching and finding artists was conducted with the help of that great tool called the Internet and word-of-mouth effect. Almost everybody I approached was very willing to participate. I think that only two high calibre artists declined. The hardest part in making that film was being forced to eliminate so many artists from the final product. As a result of this experience I felt very grateful and enriched by all these women who shared with me their time and thoughts.”