Arts + Culture
Photo by Edward Burke.

These African Women Artists Discuss Using Art as a Language of Resistance to Patriarchy

We speak with South African artist Mary Sibande and Egypt's Ghada Amer at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

"What about the black female body promotes looting?" South African artist Mary Sibande posed to a sold-out audience at '(Re)Visioning Her-Story: The Black Female Body in the Black Female Imagination', a panel discussion held last Wednesday at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Photographer Ayana V. Jackson and Zimbabwe-born novelist Panashe Chigumadzi joined Sibande as panelists. Collectively they examined the role their own bodies play in creating alternate visions of black womanhood.

The event was part of the museum's new Women's Initiative—a campaign to include more African women in its collections and exhibitions—and was a lead-up to the museum's second annual African Art Awards Dinner, held Friday. This year the museum awarded Sibande and Ghada Amer, a multimedia artist and activist born in Egypt, for using their art platforms to support and advocate for women globally.

Sibande created a literal superhero to conquer South Africa's social and historical gender and racial inequalities. The life-sized figure, whom she named Sophie, is cast from a mold of Sibande's own body, so her work is truly personal. "Sophie," Sibande described when we met at the museum the day following the panel, "is meant to deconstruct the racial hierarchy by offering a new African identity." Sophie's identity is rooted in Sibande's own family history. Often dressed in a maid's uniform that is transformed into an elaborate Victorian era-style costume, Sophie's image is inspired by Sibande's grandmother, who was a maid. However, Sophie is liberated.

Sibande presents Sophie in various dynamic poses: Commanding a chariot of rocking horses or unleashing a wild gang of dogs, and other fantastical scenarios. "Sophie is not about victimization," she says. As such, Sophie remains the protagonist; she embodies the aspirations of Sibande's ancestors but those which apartheid forbade. In Sibande's work Sophie reigns gallantly and commands her setting of orchestrated chaos.

Although Sophie is the visual representation of domestic labor endured through generations of South Africa's apartheid, her image is simultaneously a negotiation of the liberation of the black female body. The figure represents an escape from the racial and gender hierarchies imposed upon the black female body and exists in a space of her own. This escapism to this idealized space is "a tapping into Afrofuturism and to a land that is not colonized," Sibande explained.

Naturally, South Africa's apartheid system has parallels to slavery in the United States. Sibande acknowledges this link: "When you look at the way my work is being exhibited of the domestic worker, and you look at the history of the domestic workers in South Africa and you look at the history of domestic workers in America, there is a relationship in that both of these institutions were created to limit the black body," she explains.

Sibande's deconstructing of the black South African female archetype resonates with American artist Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, made in 1972. Saar upended the imagery of Jemima—a marketable offspring of the 'Mammy' figure—and armed her with a gun and grenade. A recent article titled, "How Bettye Saar Transformed Aunt Jemima into a Symbol of Black Power," described Saar's work as:

An assemblage that repositions a derogatory figurine, a product of America's deep-seated history of racism, as an armed warrior. It's become both Saar's most iconic piece and a symbol of black liberation and radical feminist art—one which legendary Civil Rights activist Angela Davis would later credit with launching the black women's movement…. In the cartoonish Jemima figure, Saar saw a hero ready to be freed from the bigotry that had shackled her for decades.

In February 2017 the African Art Museum hosted a symposium that examined "the ongoing presence of stereotypes like Aunt Jemima and the barriers those stereotypes pose to the advancement of American culture."

In 2014 artist Kara Walker, who has a decades-long oeuvre on exploring race, gender, violence and sexuality within American racial history, presented A Subtlety, an installation that examined the representation of the black body—on a gargantuan scale. The exhibition commented on the role of sugar in the history of the enslavement of people of color. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a massive sugarcoated Mammy-like figure resting as a sphinx. At the rear of the sculpture was an exposed vulva, which provoked consideration of the theme of sexualization of the black body. Ultimately controversy arose as visitors began to take selfies with suggestive hand gestures aimed at the vulva, thereby imposing sex acts upon the black female body. Perhaps the "looting" Sibande referenced is somehow an auto-response.

Sibande's co-honoree at the African Art Awards, Amer, addresses the hyper-sexualization of the female body using a diverse range of mediums, including embroidery and sculpture. For her embroidered art, Amer reworks pornographic imagery by sewing long threads over the women's faces to reclaim the moment of euphoria and return the expression of female sexuality to the subject, thereby rendering consumers of the pornographic image powerless.

A professed feminist, Amer also draws inspiration from current events into her body of work. After watching news footage from the Arab Spring, of an Egyptian policeman tackling a female protestor to the floor and ripping her clothes so that her blue bra was exposed, Amer created The Blue Bra Girls (2012). She carved images of girls in embrace on all sides of the egg-shaped sculpture, which is currently on view at the African Art museum. The sculpture is free-standing to underscore the narrative of women supporting one another.

Both Sibande and Amer use art as a language of resistance to upend the representation of women ascribed by a patriarchal gaze. "This is how I tell my stories," Sibande says. "I am questioning where we came from as South Africans and what apartheid is and what apartheid means to me right now." Amer says the role of art is, "the best form of resistance that I can do."

Although both artists state their work is not made with deliberate political intent, art and politics are intertwined. One of Sibande's most notable 'Sophie' works, titled, Purple Shall Govern (2013), derives its name from the 1989 apartheid march in Cape Town, where police sprayed protestors with purple dye in order to easily identify them for arrest. "I think it will be difficult to separate [art from politics] because for me to exist is because of the politics that are around me. Or the politics of what my body projects into the world," concludes Sibande. Amer adds, "My art is not political because it is my own point of view and my experience. It's not about changing the world immediately. I believe art can change the world, and will change the world, and it is doing it gradually."

Nadia Sesay is a Sierra Leonean based in Washington, D.C., traveling the world to indulge in art. She is Editor of BLANC Modern Africa, a magazine on contemporary art and culture inspired exclusively by Africa and its Diaspora.


More South African Young Men Continue to Die in Coming-of-Age Initiation Ceremonies

The death toll has already risen to 21 this initiation season alone.

Twenty-one male initiates have already died this initiation season in South Africa, News24 reports. There are concerns that the death toll will continue to rise. While deaths have occurred across the country, the highest number of deaths has been in the Eastern Cape, home of the Xhosa people among whom the initiation ceremonies are most commonly practised.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best African Memes of 2018

Laugh with us into 2019 with OkayAfrica's best African memes of 2018.

Meme culture has become a mainstay on these internet streets. It's essentially an alternate form of communicating, of commentary and of simple laughter. 2018 had its fair share of highs and lows, and young Africans continue to utilize memes to celebrate or to cope with the nonsense.

To reflect on the African memes that broke the internet this year, we tapped contributors and African meme tastemakers to list the best African memes of 2018.

Laugh away below.

Keep reading... Show less

The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

get okayafrica in your inbox