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.

Audio
Samthing Soweto. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

The 20 Best South African Songs of 2019

Featuring DJ Zinhle, Tellaman, Sun-El Musician, Flame, Kabza De Small, The Big Hash, MFR Souls, Spaza, and many more

This year saw the rise of the new house music subgenre amapiano in South Africa. Artists like Kabza De Small, MFR Souls and others became household names after years of serving a niche fanbase.

While Amapiano is everywhere, it doesn't mean other genres aren't prospering in the country. From the conventional house of DJ Zinhle, the sung raps of Flame and The Big Hash, and the improvisational jazz of Spaza, among other exciting acts, South African artists ensured 2019 was yet another memorable year.

OkayAfrica contributors Mayuyuka Kaunda and Sabelo Mkhabela pick 20 songs they feel were the best this year.

Read our selections below. This list is in no particular order.

Follow our MZANSI HEAT playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Watch the Teaser for Netflix's First African Original Series ​'Queen Sono'

'Queen Sono' will officially premiere on Netflix on February 28th, 2020.

A few months ago, production for Netflix's first African original series Queen Sono was well underway. The streaming giant recently announced that the spy-thriller series, starring Pearl Thusi as the lead actress, will premiere on February 28th next year to 190 countries across the world.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Walshy Fire Photo: RAHIM FORTUNE

Interview: Walshy Fire On Reconnecting Africa and the Caribbean through The Sound Of Rum

A conversation with the Jamaican born DJ/Producer and Bacardi Sound Of Rum curator who's worked with Mr Eazi, Vanessa Mdee, Ice Prince and Runtown.

Sponsored content from Bacardi

"If we aren't talking about growth, positivity and good energy in the opportunities that we have, then we're wasting our opportunities" Walshy Fire says. "It's about helping move the culture forward - which is what I want to do". The artist, born Leighton Paul Walsh, recently released his Afrobeats and dancehall-fusing debut solo album, ABENG, after achieving global success as one third of supergroup Major Lazer and producing standout hits such as Koffee's "Toast".

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Photo by Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-Government Protests Intensify Among Algerian Students

Thousands of Algerian students are protesting against a presidential election scheduled for December 12th.

Thousands of students in Algeria have again taken to the streets of the capital city Algiers to protest the presidential election set to take place tomorrow.

Aljazeera reports that weeks of protests have seen students, now joined by workers, demanding political reforms and a removal of the political elite from the Algerian government.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.