ArtsWork Refiguring Women

2012 | Photo: © ArtsWork: Refiguring Women 2012

Where is the voice of African women in the arts today? The Goethe-Institut invited 24 women from across Africa, practising in the arts field, to discuss issues of positioning, gender and identity at the ArtsWork workshop in Johannesburg.

In her essay Providing a Space of Freedom: Women Artists from Africa, N’Goné Fall writes: „Until the late 1980s, being a female artist was supposed to be a part-time diversion. Women were allowed to be involved in such areas as craft, home décor, fashion, and hairstyle. And when they did paint, they were supposed to produce pretty canvases to be hung in the homes of the local bourgeoisie. No questions, no provocations. They were expected to create decorative beauty, not deal with intellectual theories. By confining them in that narrow role, African societies were in effect denying that a woman could be a full-time artist who addressed challenging conceptual issues. The new generation that emerged in the late 1990s radically changed the landscape. Its members entered the scene creating art of remarkable intensity, exploring issues of race, gender, domestic or psychological violence, power, territory, postcolonialism, and democracy. They took on the challenge of questioning their society — how they fit into it as women, and how they relate to the world as Africans.”

Gender roles and identity revisited

In line with the gender and identity theme, acclaimed photographer Zanele Muholi opened her exhibition entitled Phases and Faces, a portrait series of black homosexual individuals (particularly lesbians) at the Goethe-Institut. The exhibition had previously been shown at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel and Oldenburg, Germany, and now returned to South Africa. The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways?

The biggest challenges are the lack of art education, mentoring, and visibility in the market

During the course of the week, the lack of art education, mentoring, visibility and research were identified as some of the most pressing challenges that women in the arts across the continent face today. Participants N’Goné Fall and Jacqueline Karuti agreed that these issues were openly discussed at the ArtsWork conference. The youngest workshop participant, visual artist Jacqueline Karuti from Nairobi, adds that she was positively surprised at how openly the women spoke about gender and sexuality issues pertaining to the arts, and she doubts that such open discussions would have been possible in her native Kenya. 

Sharing experiences and learning from each other

For young artists like Jacqueline, ArtsWork presented a much appreciated opportunity to learn from more seasoned female artists, and to make valuable connections along the way. Architect-turned-curator N’Goné Fall believes that art can positively impact society – once people understand that art is not mere decoration, but rather a medium to address serious social issues. Inspired by discussions at ArtsWork, she wants to research previous generations of female artists, to make them visible and pay them tribute.

This article is in context with the ArtsWork 2012: Refiguring Women conference, initiated by the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg. This platform is aimed at reflecting on the roles of women and their spaces and artistic practices. Above all, it is a platform for networking and exchange between female African artists.

ArtsWork was first organised in 2011, when it looked at the position of women in film.

ArtsWork 2012: Refiguring Women focused on African Women in the Arts from three perspectives: Positioning, the role of women in the visual arts; The Body, current tensions around the use of the female body in visual arts; and Trans-identity, looking at transformative approaches within feminism and the concept of gender.

In November 2012, the Goethe-Institut, in co-operation with Nontobeko Ntombela and Jabu Pereira, hosted a series of talks, discussion forums, presentations and networking opportunities, bringing together a group of 24 women in the arts from various African countries, the diaspora, and Germany.