Rethinking the Artistic Trajectory of African Women Artists
Kaunda: Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umodzi (let us move together in unity)
Response: Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umo.
Tiyende Pamodzi is a liberation song in Zambia popularly sang by Kenneth Kaunda since the early days of the liberation struggle. The song is also a solidarity call, sung in a lead and response manner. Kaunda who usually leads calls everyone together in unity. In many renditions of this song, Kaunda sings the sentence 'Amai Tiyende Pamodzi' which translate to 'women let us go together and conquer'. This call for action underscores the importance of women in society and the need for their inclusion in the writing of a holistic global history. In relation to the arts, there are gaps in the study of women artists. Their second place in history is usually attributed to oppressive structures and religious strictures. Yet, there is a sense in which these same societies celebrated and immortalised women. This ambivalence cuts across many African communities. For instance, in Benin history, Queen Idia the mother of the 16th century king Oba Esigie was given pride of place in the arts. The king immortalised his mother and instituted the title of the ‘Queen mother’ (Iyoba) because of the important role she played in sustaining the throne for him. The mask, the symbol for the 2nd Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in 1977, features as a major item of regalia worn by Benin kings as a pectoral mask and has become a Pan African symbol. Additionally, in some parts of Yoruba land, women presided over major masquerades. Gelede masquerades associated with the power and prowess of women place them in positions of authority. On the global art scene, the invisibility of women in public space is being gradually addressed. Kenyan/American based artist, Wangechi Mutu, was recently commissioned to produce four bronze sculptures titled, Seated I, II, III and IV to occupy the niche in the facade of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the 117-year history of the Metropolitan Museum, this is the first time such a commission will be granted. Her female sculptures portray the elevation of the status of women in public space. Mutu's hybrid figures have been described as 'invariably stately, resilient, and self-possessed. They announce their authority and autonomy. Appearing to have recently arrived on the facade of The Met, they are the "new ones" who bring a world of new ideas and new perspectives. The Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts hosted an exhibition titled I Am Woman, curated by Karen Melbourne and inspired by the title of the fifty-year feminist anthem, I Am Woman. The Smithsonian's all-women exhibition attempts to bridge the gap of the under-representation of women in their collection. The recent increase in the acquisition of women's art from 11 percent to 22 percent in their collection shows a concerted effort to recognise and enhance women participation in the visual arts. In the same vein, the Baltimore Museum announced in November 2019 its intent to collect only art made by women artists in 20202. Beyond this shift in global exhibition history, there have been attempts within the academy and curatorial studies to document the immense work that women are doing both locally and internationally. In a recent meeting held in Paris, a non-profit organisation, Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions (AWARE), founded in 2014 by Camille Morineau held a workshop. The goal of this organisation is to index and disseminate information about female artists globally. While there is considerable information about female artists in the West, there is a gaping lack for African women based on the continent. This issue was earlier raised by another research team known as, Women on Aeroplanes.
In 2018, a concerted search for a Nigerian female artist, Collette Omogbai, who appears to have gone off the radar, despite her early and first showing organised by Ulli Beier at the Mbari Club in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 19633. The Women on Aeroplane project was curated by Annett Busch, Maria- Helene Gutberlet and Magdalena Lipska and co-produced by Iwalewahaus, Universitat Bayreuth. The lack of information, as well as poor sources of images of works of several female artists, is a major problem identified in this study. This sort of erasure as in the case of Omogbai pervades the trajectory of many female artists across the continent. This research seeks to contribute towards documenting the work of African women artists as a way of positioning women in global art history. The lack of women artists' biographies and critical analysis of their works contribute in no small measure to the erasure that has been identified and stated. In many countries in Africa such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo and others, there are women artists, who like Omogbai, have become invisible due to the lack of early and proper documentation of their work. This research aims to identify select women artist's work that will be studied and documented, which will, in turn, create an alternative archive of women artists in Africa. Artists like Dorothy Amenuke, Fatric Bewong, Tracy Thompson, and Adjo Kisser (Ghana), Victoria Ekpei, Chris Funke Ifeta, Kaltume Bulama Gana (Nigeria) and Agnes Buya Yombwe (Zambia) have been identified. However, in this phase of research, we identify two African women artists; Agnes Buya Yombwe (b. 1966 Zambia), and Elizabeth Olowu( 1939, Nigeria). These two artists have been actively producing art, but have not received the sort of scholarly attention that they deserve. Yombwe has done extensive art projects and exhibitions in Zambia. Her art explores the notion of women in Zambian culture, particularly 'bana chimbusa' the culture of women teaching younger women and brides in Zambia. Very little of her practice is known and documented. Elizabeth is the first female bronze caster in Nigeria. She took to casting in 1965 and later learnt the art from the guild of casters. Her entry into a male-dominated area brought her in view with the 1991 publication by Betty La Duke. Much has been written about her cement statuary but very little is known about the cast sculptures and performative arts. Olowu had been involved with performances since the 1970s. Her contributions to Edo wedding ceremonies, state art workshops and events in the 1980s provide a lot of information worthy of research. The Nigerian Observer and many other National newspapers covered some of her activities during this period and provide a wealth of information. The research promises to provide extensive scholarly engagement with these artists.
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