Seeing and Being Seen Women Artists in Africa Seize Their Place

Tumi Nkopane, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg 2010, © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Tumi Nkopane, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg 2010, © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg | Photo: © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Women were practically invisible in the African art scene for a very long time; work in the arts was even considered unseemly for women. But gradually a forum is growing for female subjects and forms of expression.

Cape Town 2008: A black maid waits at the security gate of a congress centre. Inside the international women’s rights organization Avid, a rather exclusive event, is meeting. The watchman assesses the maid disparagingly, but finally lets her pass. She’s told him her white “madam” is inside and he does not want to cause trouble. He has no idea that Zanele Muholi is not really a domestic – nor does the conference before which the artist reveals herself soon thereafter. In the conference hall she pulls out her camera and begins photographing the participants. Those present are irritated and Muholi takes advantage of it for her main act: She stands in front of the women and admonishes them to be thankful for the work of others who have been cleaning toilets for them since the early morning.

Provoking subject matter

Months after the performance comes the portrait series Massah and Minah. In it Zanele Muholi again illuminates the relationship between white female employers and black maids – this time with ironic sexual innuendos. In South African art circles she has long been known for this kind of provoking work. She is also known internationally. Last year the 40-year-old was a guest at the Documenta with another portrait series and won a number of prizes for her work. She manages to negotiate complex South African subject matter at home and abroad – the power structures of post-Apartheid society as well as the difficulties dealing with homosexuality. At present Muholi is probably one of Africa’s best-known photographers. She nonetheless fights for recognition.

Even in Johannesburg, one of the most progressive and lively art cities on the continent, it is still not common for a black, lesbian artist to show her works in the relevant art locations. Only four years ago the South African cultural minister refused to open an exhibition with Muholi’s works. In many African countries female artists have a much tougher time of it than their male colleagues. Until the late 1980s they were practically invisible. Beyond handicrafts they were mainly there for decoration; social issues and provocation were undesirable. In many countries, the profession of artist was considered unseemly for women.

Female art scene

Today the latter, at least, is no longer true. Since the mid-1990s a female art scene has been rising between Cairo and Cape Town that is emancipated aesthetically and in content from colonial and patriarchal structures. However, even today young female artists still have to battle for advancement and awareness on the inner-African art market. This was one of the reasons that the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg initiated a conference late last year where female artists from the entire continent met to share, support one another and present a cross section of their works.

The event started up with Muholi’s exhibition Faces and Phases. Dozens of lesbians in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Botswana were photographed for the portrait series. They are young women who have been the victims of hate crimes or who fight against them as activists. Yet rather than documenting brutal attacks, rape or the murder of friends, in her series Muholi shows quite a different picture. Proud, beautiful, shy and strong women gaze at the photographer’s lens, sometimes fiercely, sometimes mischievously, and demonstrate one thing: they want to be seen. “If I wouldn’t show them this way, no one would,” says Muholi. 

Time for super-heroines

“But we do not merely want to practise feminist protest in art,” says the renowned curator N'Gone Fall from Senegal the next morning. Although the works of many women artists in Africa centre on a female self-concept, this is not so in the narrower sense. Ten to fifteen years ago women artists like Bill Kouelani (Congo) and Berry Bickle (Zimbabwe) were still very focused on physicality and its instrumentalization. But now the art scene of southern Africa seems to be in the grasp of a new trend: today the art galleries are populated by a series of super-heroines.

One of them is Sophie by the South African shooting star Mary Sibande. Sophie is also a maid, but one with special powers. The life-sized figure made of fiberglass, of which there are many versions, always wears a big blue dress, which Sibande says has magical powers. In it, Sophie can go from her supposed subordinate position to the most adventuresome situations. She may meet African-American self-made millionairesses or become a national monument on her steed. “My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were also maids and all of them strong women,” says Sibande. “I wanted to honour them in my work and create a character who reveals their lives from a new perspective.” Her approach has not brought her only praise. South African media wrote that her observations of social circumstances are not critical enough, or the image of the servant maid is too obsequious, the exaggeration using the magical power of a dress not up-to-date. But many who have seen Sophie consider Mary Sibande’s character a suitable form of approximation. “Like the fabric of her voluminous dresses take over the room in an almost menacing way, Sophie also creeps into our conscience and becomes part of our present,” assesses curator Nontobeko Ntombela.

The heroine created by the South African-Botswana artist Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum perhaps has more in common with contemporary women of Africa. Sunstrum’s character is named Asmi, can be seen in videos, images and installations and has multiple personalities. Any criticism of being out-of-date would go astray with her: Asmi is a clever blend of mythic being, afro-futurist heroine, time traveller and earth woman. She, too, is a split personality in the best sense, embodying not only a certain female ideal, but many variations of a non-conformist. 

Against the mainstream clichés

Muholi, Sunstrum and Sibande are driven to rebel against stereotypes and social conformity. Their heroines battle the clichés of the mainstream media, even against cartoon characters like the protagonist of the discriminative US comic Voodoo. Voodoo is black, a former striptease dancer and her name is an ethnocentric slap in the face. “Stupefying,” says Zambian artist Milumbe Haimbe, “The only black female superhero hovering about in our children’s rooms is a dense sex bomb and killing machine.” The new heroines of African art are certainly far more complex. 

Zanele Muholi was appointed as a Honorary Professor at the Hochschule für Künste (University of Arts) Bremen, Germany, on 28 October 2013.

Muholi successfully bridges the gap between political commitment and artistic quality; her body of work occupies a distinctive position in contemporary photography.