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The Future Of African Women In Art

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An art exhibition is a confluence of creative minds and the perfect opportunity to understand the current thinking of a country’s intelligentsia.

Lebohang Kganye and Nandipha Mntambo are two of 13 female artists – from Ethiopia to Egypt to Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa – we meet showcasing their work, at the historic Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg on May 10, for the exhibition, Being her(e): Meditations on African Femininities, examining what it means to be “a female body in contemporary Africa”.

Searching for mother

Lebohang Kganye

Lebohang Kganye (Photo supplied)

“I am excited to be part of the exhibition, because it is not a show overseas, about Africa, but it is an exhibition in a historical space in Africa. I have no reservations about the future of women in arts across Africa, and this exhibition emphasizes that,” says South African photographer Kganye.

Her first piece of art, B(l)ack to Fairy Tales, in 2011, explored her memories of a fairy tale world by Walt Disney.

“I identified with fairy tale characters – the white skin, long hair, blue eyes, perfect figure… My black skin and location became an increasing disjuncture with the fantasies I believed in. Hence, I paint myself excessively black for B(l)ack to Fairy Tales”.

For her collection, Kganye uses photographs from her 2013 series, Ke Lefa Laka, dedicated to her mother.

“Her death sparked the need to trace my ancestral roots. I initially began navigating my history through geographic mapping, attempting to trace where my family originated and how we ended up in these different spaces that we all now call home. I visited the different locations where my family lived in South Africa and found old family photo albums.

“I began looking for pieces of my mother in the house. I found many photos and clothes which had always been there but which I had ignored over the years. There she was smiling and posing in these clothes. My re-connection with her became a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories. I began inserting myself into her pictorial narrative by emulating these snaps.

“I would dress in the exact clothes that she was wearing in these 20-year-old photographs and mimic the same poses. This was my way of marrying the two memories; mine and hers. I later developed digital photomontages where I juxtaposed old photographs of my mother retrieved from the family archives with photographs of a ‘present version of her’ – she is me, I am her, and there remains in this commonality so much difference, and so much distance in space and time,” says Kganye.

In 2011, she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, where she displays her self-portraits. She is now busy with a new collection of photographs, Reconstruction Of A Family.

The Cowhide Chick

Nandipha Mntambo

Nandipha Mntambo (Photo supplied)

It’s a gloomy day in Johannesburg when we meet with South African sculptor, photographer and videographer Nandipha Mntambo at her apartment-cum-studio in New Doornfontein but around her are bursts of color. Mntambo is surrounded by her paintings and sculptures. Art has always been in her blood.

Mntambo was born in Swaziland and grew up in South Africa. She graduated with a master’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town (UCT), in 2007. Her father was a bishop, so it was a nomadic childhood.

“We moved around the country because of my father’s job and at that time it was still under apartheid because of the neighborhood that we lived in there were certain schools that didn’t accept me so I ended up studying at a Jewish school, then a Catholic and a Methodist school, the different cultures and religion had an influence on how I deal with things,” she says.

Mntambo, 35, wanted to study forensics pathology but couldn’t deal with dead bodies.

“I wanted to be a scientist; the Stellenbosch University had a good department and I was even job-shadowing but then I thought seeing dead people every day wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing for me.

“Luckily, I had a portfolio from high school, I sent it to UCT and then they accepted me into their art program. At the time, I didn’t imagine I would be a full-time practising artist. I was just happy to create work and learn more about art history,” says Mntambo.

In her work, Mntambo focuses on the human body and the organic nature of identity, using natural materials and experimenting with sculptures moulded from cowhide. For this, she is known as the ‘cowhide chick’.

She uses her own body as the mould for these sculptures and does not intend to make statements about femininity.

“One of the challenges I’ve had was to have a language that would help me explain to somebody that because I am a black female within a particular context, the issues of lobola, women, cows and culture are there but it’s not what my work is about,” she says.

One of Mntambo’s favorite materials is the skin of the cow. Her art works explore the similarities and differences between animals and humans; men and women, and attraction and repulsion.

“I was really interested in mythology when I first started and the fact that throughout many civilizations there are stories of animals and humans and how they inter-relate.”

The job wasn’t always easy.

“I work with organic material that gets insects and had to deal with cow fat. Because at first I didn’t understand the material enough, it felt like a bit of self-punishment; dealing with flies and losing studio mates. There was also a time when finances were a problem and the work wasn’t selling,” says Mntambo.

“In South Africa, we have few female black artists and sculptures. It took a long time to be accepted in certain circles in terms of how people interpret my work, and how they view me. You’re not allowed to exist as just as an artist or sculpture, you exist as a black female artist, so there all these preconceived ideas that people either put on you or their interpretation of the work. There are also strange limitations that people put on you,” she says.

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The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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