Events, Works, Exhibitions
- (Tran)scribed History: Thảo Nguyên Phan’s Palimpsest Visions of Colonialism and Conversion
- Privileging Community Voices: Cultural Revitalisation in Museology and Contemporary Art from Papua New Guinea
- Counter-Imaginaries: 'Women Artists on the Move', 'Second to None' and 'Like A Virgin...'
- Reconstruction of a Reconstruction: Constantin Brâncuși in Multiple Historical Frames
Counter-Imaginaries: 'Women Artists on the Move', 'Second to None' and 'Like A Virgin...'
In the past 30 years, contemporary African art became more recognised through various international large-scale exhibitions, magazine articles and exhibition catalogues that repositioned African artists in a global dialogue. Notable among these are the biennials established on the continent during the 1990s in Bamako, Dakar and Johannesburg, magazines such as Nka, Third Text and Revue Noire, and catalogues for exhibitions such as ‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994’ and ‘Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa’.1 Yet African women artists during the same period – their exhibitions, works and perspectives on modernity – have been critically and historically neglected. In this essay, I focus on three small-scale exhibitions organised by African women curators and artists: ‘Women Artists on the Move’, organised by Lilian Mary Nabulime at the Makerere University Art Gallery in Kampala in 1995; ‘Second to None’, curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Virginia MacKenny at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 2006; and ‘Like A Virgin…’, curated by Bisi Silva at the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Lagos in 2009. Taken together, the divergent approaches of these three exhibitions, in Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria respectively, foreground a more complex history of the continent and challenge the assumptions of existing modernist histories and art academies in Africa.
According to which criteria do we define the importance of exhibitions? Is it according to the volume of press coverage and critical response? According to their citation by artists and curators? According to formal or technical innovation? It is clear that ‘Women Artists on the Move’, and many exhibitions like it, are missing from historical accounts of contemporary African art in the 1990s.2 Are we therefore to conclude that the only significant initiatives in African art, apart from a few mega-events such as the Dakar and Johannesburg biennials, were aforementioned exhibitions such as ‘Short Century’ and ‘Seven Stories’ and their contributions to postcolonial debates from Europe and the United States? Or does a project such as ‘Women Artists on the Move’ – a collective of artists ‘coming together as women’, in which authorship is not centred within a singular curatorial mission, and which did not register in the international art press (headquartered in Euro-America) at the moment of its staging – suggest that we need a different criterion of importance?
‘Women Artists on the Move’ was held in the gallery space of Makerere University and featured works by Nabulime (the exhibition’s primary organiser), Sylvia Katende, Rose Namubiru Kirumira, Margaret Nagawa and Maria Naita, among others. It was one of a number of all-women exhibitions taking place in East Africa in 1995,3 and the exhibition may be seen in the context of emergent 1990s transnational feminism. Yet in distinction to other female-centred initiatives from that year, ‘Women Artists on the Move’ was ‘the first one for women artists that has been organized by a Ugandan woman for a women’s cause’, thus emphasising the explicit self-organising it afforded Ugandan women artists and aligning it with projects of ‘cultural’ self-determination and emancipation.4 As such the curatorial thesis lay in the collaborative mutual development of exhibition-making through women-led collective organising. As participating artist Kirumira recalls, for Nabulime ‘the experiences of women’ were the explicit criteria and they specifically chose works ‘that spoke to the audience as women artists’.5
The artists included in ‘Women Artists on the Move’ were part of a ‘second wave’ of women artists to come out of Makerere University art school in the 1980s and 1990s. An earlier generation, active since the 1960s, includes Rosemary Karuga, Theresa Musoke and Lydia Mugambi, to mention just a few practitioners who are still alive and exhibiting today.6 Karuga made collages of tableaux and various scenes of daily life in Kenya; Musoke focussed on imaginative compositions of landscape and wildlife; and Mugambi is a notable painter. Mugambi and Musoke both studied in the US soon after Makerere, with the latter returning to East Africa in the 1970s to teach at the University of Nairobi. The ‘second wave’ of Makerere women artists mostly joined the art school in the 1980s and worked primarily in sculpture; although some, such as Venny Nakazibwe, Sarah Nakisanze and Josephine Mukasa, took up textile design and helped to usher in the art school’s efforts towards accommodating women artists in studying fashion.
‘Women Artists on the Move’ included sculpture, painting and textiles. In the catalogue, an untitled cement sculpture by Katende is described as ‘expressive’7 – not a reference to the European movement but rather to artistic strategies in depicting pain and trauma, borrowing from strategies by pioneering Makerere sculptor Francis Musangogwantamu (with whom Katende studied). For an earlier group of Makerere artists, expressiveness was connected to the memory of war in an East African context: most notably, the mobilisation of Ugandan subjects by the British colonial administration during the Second World War and events surrounding the Uganda–Tanzania War (1978–79) and Luwero War (1981–86). Elsewhere in the show, Nagawa’s untitled clay sculpture showing a female figure curled up into herself recalls the influence of British artist Henry Moore, whose rounded sculptural abstraction was popular among Makerere-trained sculptors. By contrast, Nakisanze, perhaps one of the few artists at the time to focus on textile design, presented an untitled multicoloured tie-dye peacock textile. This trend of textile-based works had become popular during the wartime period in Uganda, as materials became scarce between 1979 and 1989. Artists were drawn to batik, and textiles, echoing the Indonesian technique, but infusing African tie-dye processes and designs.
The site of education itself, and the potential of African feminism(s) within this space, is a notable additional layer to the exhibition. The art school itself had been established by a woman, British educator and author Margaret Trowell, in 1937 – a fact noted in the catalogue, albeit without registering complexity and ambivalence of this lineage.8 Explicitly referencing the objectives of The Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, a gathering in Beijing convened by the United Nations that took place earlier in 1995, ‘Women Artists on the Move’ positioned itself in relation to the Beijing ‘women in development’ manifesto, which argued that economic development was not achievable without the full participation of women. While it is unclear to what extent the group was involved in Beijing, records indicate that participating artist Katende gave a conference paper on the art education of girls and Kirumira would attend a follow-up United Nations Plan for Action meeting in Manitoba, Canada.9 Moreover, the experience of staging the exhibition within Makerere University solidified the visibility of women artists on the university campus, transforming the hitherto male-dominated space of art education.
Nabulime recalls that the exhibition attracted a generous press response, featured on the radio and in the daily newspapers.10 Keturah Kamugasa’s review in national daily New Vision was glowing. Yet it provoked a more mixed and sometimes outraged response within the artistic community at large, something that Nabulime did not anticipate. The particular reasoning behind such reactions are not recorded, but a generalised backlash against the visibility of feminist artists in a small and male-dominated field would blight the success of women in art in subsequent years. And alongside these local problematics, the unevenness of global-local relations in the contemporary art field has led to an unfair imbalance in the historicisation of African women artists practising during the 1990s, a situation exacerbated by Uganda’s weak economic position after the Luwero War and the fall of the Soviet Union, which dampened the enthusiasm of critics and collectors. The net result is that small-scale shows on the continent are more-or-less forgotten, the smaller or artist-led institutions that host them are similarly historically neglected,11 and, ultimately, critical attention is diverted from the important work being done within African feminist debates and practices.
The task of an African feminist art history, and of historicising African women artists is one that forces us to reconsider how we analyse the legacy of pan-Africanism; this includes its treatment of women’s bodies as purely illustrative of Africanist liberation ideology, or its relegating to the margins women student leaders and women intellectuals at the forefront of the establishment of political and cultural movements. Such a task would be to negotiate the complex battles between personal and collective memory and official national archives and records, and to accept neither the pathological nor ideological paradigms that have actively shaped the production of state-organised and even more radical social and political histories.12
‘Second to None’ (2006) is an example of an exhibition that foregrounds the political significance and ‘power to action’ of black women across history. Curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Virginia MacKenny, it drew from under-acknowledged narrative(s) of black women in South African politics, and their important contributions to social and political history. It took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March, organised by the African National Congress Women’s League, in which 20,000 women marched in protest of the South African government’s ‘pass laws’ that required black South Africans to carry internal passports as part of the racist apartheid regime. Positioning itself explicitly in relation to this historical moment, the exhibition drew from the permanent collection of the South African National Gallery to convene a diverse range of works by women artists as a means to explore the role of gender and race in South Africa between 1960 and 1990 (which saw the lifting of bans on organisations such as the African National Congress and marked the beginning of the end of apartheid) and in the post-apartheid era. As its press release announced, the exhibition aimed to ‘assert women’s power to action’, and to ‘negotiate issues linked to individual and collective identity, race and gender’. Combining an explicit focus on race and gender with a non-identitarian approach (the artist list was neither only female nor only black13) ‘Second to None’ wrestled with an overdetermined framework of feminism laid out by white South African women historians, artists and curators.
As Sharlene Khan writes in an article on the state of curatorial and art historical work in South Africa that was published the same year as ‘Second to None’: ‘White domination of the visual arts industry is overwhelming, the dominance of white females especially glaring.’14 This shows how unusual it was for a black woman curator, Ngcobo, to be co-organising an exhibition at one of the country’s leading museums in the nation’s capital, Cape Town.15 ‘Second to None’, the title chosen by Ngcobo, suggests a disavowal of male dominance – a reading supported by the official press materials (which reference ‘women’s power’ in general rather than black women’s power in particular). But a close reading of the curatorial argument as expressed in the exhibition itself suggests a stronger political charge: the disavowal of white female dominance, as in, black women are not second to white women.
At the forefront of the 1956 protest were the figures Albertina Sisulu, Winifred Madikizela Mandela and Adelaide Tambo, who were leaders of the African National Congress Women’s League, a platform for black women’s political action. It is important to underline here the political-racial dynamics of the 1956 march – it was an event organised by and for black women, in protest of a law that did not apply to white women. ‘Second to None’ thus builds a narrative that positions the key 1956 event, and by extension, black women’s political organising, as the axis to rethink the progress made after 1994. Analogously, the 2006 show also sought to realign the position of black women within existing South African art histories: whereas black women appear as marginal in the histories of women in modern and contemporary South African art established by white women critics, ‘Second to None’ presented ‘established’ black South African women artists as equals to their white counterparts.
If the exhibition strategy was to build new narratives, foregrounding the contributions of black women in politics and art, it also suggested new lineages across different generations of black women artists. The show brought together ‘established’ first-generation black women modern artists such as Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi and Noria Mabasa, ‘second wave’ artists including Tracey Rose and Berni Searle and ‘emerging’ artists like Keorapetse Mosimane and Zanele Muholi. Prominent among exhibited works were Sebidi’s iconic large-scale epic drawing, The Mother Holds the Sharp Side of the Knife (1988–89), based on a Setswana proverb, and the bright colours of Rose’s wallpaper work Fucking Flowers (2006), reminiscent of nineteenth-century Victorian paisley and print design, albeit with dripping white phalluses emerging from exotic-looking blossoms. Sensual, corporeal and sexual thematics continued into the third wave of black women artists in the show, with multiple works from Muholi’s photographic series on menstruation, Period II (2005) and Mosimane’s genderqueer portrait Androgenia – A Beautiful Boy (2004).
There are various examples of the shortcomings, distortions and mis-statements of existing discourses around black women in South African art history. Often these arguments and accounts supporting modernism bear an implicit call for white and/or male dominance that negates any form of knowledge internal to black women. To give one example: beyond generally scientific notes on what girls learn from their grandmothers in rural South Africa, Sebidi’s work is hardly taken seriously until her meeting with male artist John Koenakeefe Mohl in 1970.16 A 2016 interview with Sebidi reveals how her work was deeply informed by the anxiety, violence and death of life in townships – aspects of the work particular to black South African life that had been negated in prior readings.17 With reference to the historicisation of South African women artists, curator Nontobeko Ntombela has also sharply questioned categories such as ‘primitive’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘first woman’; as part of her research on the artist Gladys Mgudlandlu for the 2009 exhibition ‘A Fragile Archive’ (which showed the work of Mgudlandlu and Valerie Desmore), Ntombela interrogates the popular myth that Mgudlandlu was the first black woman artist to exhibit in South Africa.18 Such a project echoes the insistence of ‘Second to None’ on an unsettled and still unresolved record of black women in South Africa’s official archive.
‘Like A Virgin…’ opened at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos in early 2009. It presented photography by Zanele Muholi – who also participated in ‘Second to None’ – alongside the work of Nigerian artist Lucy Azubuike. It sought ‘to highlight women’s experiences, identities, their bodies and sexuality, in a manner yet to be explored in contemporary Nigerian art’, with the exhibition’s curator Bisi Silva stressing the experiences of women and their personal reflections.19 Silva readily admits that Nigerian women artists have made works regarding womanhood for over 30 years – yet the exhibition’s explicit focus on sexuality and the body was a means to counter dominant perspectives on black women’s bodies centred on the male gaze and male pleasure. Both artists were in a position to offer critically astute and rigorous perspectives on sexuality, male violence and womanhood: Azubuike at the time was pursuing a postgraduate qualification in gender studies; and Muholi’s earlier research on rape survivors had been published in the feminist South African journal Agenda.20 Silva writes:
In an intransigent patriarchal society, in which sexism is prevalent, and in which homophobia is legalised, few if any artists have presented complex, provocative works on the body and sexuality the way Azubuike and Muholi are doing. Two young African women working on the continent, pushing boundaries, confronting taboos and challenging stereotypes, in essence expressing themselves in a way their predecessors have done before.
In Nigeria, recent debates on homosexuality have reintroduced British colonial-era moralism and homophobia, while adding to its moral ‘obscenity’ newer proposals against pornography that appeal to evangelical Christian morality. The Nigerian situation may be seen in connection with contemporaneous developments in Uganda, where a new Anti-Homosexuality bill was drafted in 2009 reinscribing the British moralism of the Penal Code, and going further by proposing a death penalty for those caught in the act. In Nigeria, sexuality has been defined in laws such as the Penal Code, under which rape and homosexuality were respectively classified as gross indecency and obscenity. Morality in Nigeria, which is led by a federal government, is governed by a legal system, consisting of constitutional, religious and traditional laws. Nigerian federalism allows for states to implement their own laws. It is under this system that sharia law was instituted as criminal law in about twelve Northern Nigerian states in 2000.21 The human rights scholar Vincent O. Nmehielle notes: ‘[t]he proclamation of the Islamic legal system led to a number of violent ethnic and religious rifts and communal disturbances in many states, resulting in enormous loss of lives.’22 Some have argued that Islamic laws in the northern states, specifically those focussing on public morality, have led to ‘the curtailment of women’s activities, mobility, and visibility’.23
This limitation certainly extends to the visual arts. In a recent interview, Silva mentioned that because of this development of public moral policing, the making of ‘Like A Virgin…’ posed a threat to both the curator and the art centre CCA. While Lagos state is not one in which sharia law applies to criminal matters, its symbolic location as Nigeria’s economic capital cannot be overlooked when considering public-facing events. This intense set of political and moral circumstances divided the audience attending the exhibition. According to Silva, the guestbook was full of comments that reflected on the one hand, praise, and on the other, disgust, including strong reactions to the spectacle of menstrual blood in Azubuike’s Menstruation Series (2006).
Thus ‘Like A Virgin…’ bravely offered a queer feminist counter-argument to public moral debates. It also opened up a critique of patriarchal tendencies within the apparently more progressive art world milieu. In her commissioned catalogue essay, ‘Past Virginity: Women, Sexuality and Art’, Christine Eyene confronts the leading Nigerian curators and art critics, Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor, by challenging their understanding of the black female body, citing an ‘African ideal’ of decency and morality in descriptions that mask a certain paternalism.24 Eyene thus argues that the works in the exhibition, by betraying these idealistic and moralistic notions of the black woman’s body in the gaze of Nigeria’s male modern artists, both Muholi and Azubuike demean and confront the appropriation of African and black women’s bodies within the modern canon.
There is evidence, in all the exhibitions discussed, of a necessary confrontation with various acts of censorship, erasure and epistemic, ontological and physical violence. In the 2009 exhibition ‘Like A Virgin…’, Muholi and Azubuike confronted homophobia and a specific paternalistic gaze particular to African modernism, and Silva risked being caught in the post-Islamic Law Declaration violence that engulfed Nigeria in 1999 and beyond. The 2006 exhibition ‘Second to None’ confronts the erasure of black women in the South African historical archive by reconfiguring how a history of women’s political action can be read from the perspective of a historic event organised primarily by black South African women. And in the 1995 exhibition ‘Women Artists on the Move’, there is an overall push back against traditional paternalistic violence, in the form of denying women the right to education, by making visible women artists’ contributions to the academic field.
The presence of African women curators in the space of either modern or contemporary art is also evidenced by all the exhibitions discussed. While the categories of ‘first woman’ are indeed problematic, we must account for the presence of African women curators within the larger local and international art field. In the 1995 exhibition, Nabulime states that it was a first for a Ugandan woman to curate a group exhibition of Ugandan women artists, decrying the predominance of white, expatriate and philanthropic curators of African arts that had in previous decades dominated the field. This same point is felt in South Africa with the 2006 exhibition, in which the equality of black women artists within the art field had been neglected, if not denied. Then, similarly in Nigeria, while not being the first Nigerian woman to curate group exhibitions devoted to women artists – earlier exhibitions organised by Afi Ekong are notable in this regard – Silva’s curatorial and institutional work counters the male-dominated Nigerian art field, which is filled with traditional paternalism and the exoticisation of black women.
The three exhibitions that I’ve discussed present a number of important questions: How are we to fully realise feminist liberation without acknowledging the works of black African women? What potential does ‘coming together as women’ and communal value have in enabling the activities of African women artists in the arts sphere? How do we transform the flattening out of women’s experiences as mere spectacle into a complex account of their personal and public lives? Each exhibition provides a critical basis for these complex questions, in order to show the potential of African feminist collectivity, and thus signifies, what collective histories in the field of contemporary African art and exhibition history could look like.
This text is dedicated to the memory of Bisi Silva, 1962–2019.
‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994’ curated by Okwui Enwezor, was first presented at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich in 2001 and toured to Berlin, Chicago and New York; ‘Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa’ was curated by Clémentine Deliss at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995.↑
Among better-known presentations of modern and contemporary African art from the 1950s until the 1990s include the cultural events held at the Mbari Club, Ibadan during the 1960s; ‘Africa and Art: An Exhibition of Art in Africa Celebrating the Independence of Tanganyika’, Margaret Trowell School of Fine Arts, Makerere University College, 1961; ‘L’Art nègre: Sources, evolution, expansion’ and ‘Tendances et confrontations’, Premier Festival mondial des artes nègres, Dakar, 1966; ‘Contemporary African Art’, Museum of African Art, Washington DC, 1974; exhibitions at FESTAC 77:
The 2nd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, Lagos, 1977; ‘Moderne Kunst in Afrika’, Festival of World Cultures, Berlin, 1979 also presented as ‘Art from Africa’, Commonwealth Institute, London, 1981; ‘Sanaa: Contemporary Art from East Africa’, Commonwealth Institute, 1984; Cairo biennial (since 1984); ‘Tributaries: A View of Contemporary Southern African Art’, Johannesburg, 1985; ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande halle de La Villette, Paris, 1989; ‘Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art’, New Museum, New York, 1991; Dakar biennial (since 1992); and Johannesburg biennial (since 1995).↑
In the catalogue foreword, Kivubiro Tabawebbula notes the following 1995 exhibitions: ‘“Women Beyond Borders” … co-ordinated by Jony Waite and conceived to unite women artists around the world … an exhibition of Ugandan and Kenyan women to inaugurate the Museum Studio Centre, National Museum of Kenya organised by Wendy Karmali … “Artistically Speaking Women” at Gallery Cafe [in Kampala] and “Women Artists in Kenya” at the Gallery of Contemporary East African Art, National Museum of Kenya’. Kivubiro Tabawebbula, ‘Foreword’, in Women Artists on the Move (exh. cat.), Kampala: Makerere Art Gallery, 1995, pp.2–3.↑
Rose Namubiru Kirumira in conversation with the author, September 2018.↑
A handful of texts offer accounts of these artists. See, for example, Margaret Nagawa, ‘The Challenges and Successes of Women Artists in Uganda’, in Marion I. Arnold (ed.), Art in Eastern Africa, Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2008, pp.151–73; and Sidney Kasfir, Contemporary African Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 2001, which also highlights a few East African women artists in the 1990s.↑
Lilian Mary Nabulime, ‘Katende Sylvia Nabiteeko’, in Women Artists on the Move, op. cit., pp.12–14.↑
See Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, ‘Margaret Trowell’s School of Art. A Case Study in Colonial Subject Formation’, in Susanne Stemmler (ed.), Wahrnehmung, Erfahrung, Experiment, Wissen Objektivität und Subjektivität in den Künsten und den Wissenschaften, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014, pp.101–22.↑
See M. Nagawa, ‘The Challenges and Successes of Women Artists in Uganda’, op. cit.↑
Interview with L. Nabulime by Nakisanze Segawa as research for this essay, Kampala, October 2018.↑
Historical examples include Paa Ya Paa in Nairobi, run by Elimo Njau; and Mbari Mbayo Club as part of Extra-Mural Studies programme in Ibadan, Nigeria; each established during the 1960s.↑
A recent research and exhibition initiative highlighting the position of women in liberation struggles is the multi-part project ‘Women on Aeroplanes’, curated by Annett Busch, Marie-Hélène Gutberlet and Magda Lipska, and co-produced by Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreut, in collaboration with Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos; ifa Gallery Berlin; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; The Showroom, London; and The Otolith Collective, London.↑
The show included, for instance, black male artists such as Nicholas Hlobo and white artists such as Penny Siopis.↑
Sharlene Khan, ‘Doing it for Daddy’, Art South Africa, vol.4, no.3, 2006, p.156.↑
Ngcobo had been working at the museum since 2005, having been appointed as an assistant curator; Virginia MacKenny was a guest curator working at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.↑
See M.I. Arnold, Women and Art in South Africa, Cape Town: David Philip, 1996; furthermore, her practice is situated in a dichotomy of rural and urban life – yet without ‘reason’, the ‘rural’ can easily slip into the domain of barbarism and senselessness.↑
See Gabi Ngcobo, Luciane Ramos-Silva and Thiago de Paula Souza, ‘In Conversation with South-African painter Helen Sebidi’, Contemporary And (C&) América Latina, 23 February 2018, available at http:// amlatina.contemporaryand.com/editorial/south-african-painter-helen-sebidi/ (last accessed on 30 January 2019).↑
Nontobeko Mabongi Ntombela, ‘A fragile archive: Refiguring| Rethinking| Reimagining| Re- presenting Gladys Mgudlandlu’, unpublished master thesis, Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand, 2014.↑
See http://www.ccalagos.org/archive/like-a-virgin/ (last accessed on 30 January 2019).↑
See Zanele Muholi, ‘Thinking through lesbian rape’, Agenda, vol.18, no.61, 2004, pp.116–25.↑
See Rasheed Oyewole Olaniyi, ‘Hisbah and Sharia Law Enforcement in Metropolitan Kano’, Africa Today, vol.57, no.4, 2011, pp.71–96.↑
Vincent O. Nmehielle, ‘Sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria: To implement or not to implement, the constitutionality is the question’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol.26, no.3, 2004, pp.730–59.↑
Fatima L. Adamu, ‘Gender, Hisba and the Enforcement of Morality in Northern Nigeria’, Africa, vol.78, no.1, 2008, pp.136–52.↑
Christine Eyene, ‘Past Virginity: Women, Sexuality and Art’, in Like A Virgin… (exh. cat.), Lagos: Center for Contemporary Art, 2009.↑