– Spring/Summer 2019

Counter-Imaginaries: 'Women Artists on the Move', 'Second to None' and 'Like A Virgin...'

Serubiri Moses

Tracey Rose, The Prelude: Garden Path, 2003, pigment inks on cotton rag paper, 73 × 49cm. Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

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

  1. ‘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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Rose Namubiru Kirumira in conversation with the author, September 2018.

  6. 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.

  7. Lilian Mary Nabulime, ‘Katende Sylvia Nabiteeko’, in Women Artists on the Move, op. cit., pp.12–14.

  8. 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.

  9. See M. Nagawa, ‘The Challenges and Successes of Women Artists in Uganda’, op. cit.

  10. Interview with L. Nabulime by Nakisanze Segawa as research for this essay, Kampala, October 2018.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. The show included, for instance, black male artists such as Nicholas Hlobo and white artists such as Penny Siopis.

  14. Sharlene Khan, ‘Doing it for Daddy’, Art South Africa, vol.4, no.3, 2006, p.156.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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).

  18. Nontobeko Mabongi Ntombela, ‘A fragile archive: Refiguring| Rethinking| Reimagining| Re- presenting Gladys Mgudlandlu’, unpublished master thesis, Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

  19. See http://www.ccalagos.org/archive/like-a-virgin/ (last accessed on 30 January 2019).

  20. See Zanele Muholi, ‘Thinking through lesbian rape’, Agenda, vol.18, no.61, 2004, pp.116–25.

  21. See Rasheed Oyewole Olaniyi, ‘Hisbah and Sharia Law Enforcement in Metropolitan Kano’, Africa Today, vol.57, no.4, 2011, pp.71–96.

  22. 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.

  23. Fatima L. Adamu, ‘Gender, Hisba and the Enforcement of Morality in Northern Nigeria’, Africa, vol.78, no.1, 2008, pp.136–52.

  24. Christine Eyene, ‘Past Virginity: Women, Sexuality and Art’, in Like A Virgin… (exh. cat.), Lagos: Center for Contemporary Art, 2009.