phenomenal african women in music, theatre, fiction, and visual art

pink_blue_bag

Pink / Blue Plastic Bag
Sokari Douglas Camp, 2010
Materials: Steel Perspex Plastic
Housed: Stux Gallery, USA

Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.

The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.

I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.

As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?

Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.

Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?

Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!

Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.

The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
  • Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
  • Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
  • Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
  • Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
  • Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
  • Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
  • Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
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women in film: fewer than you think

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”

NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:

DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?

LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?

DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.

These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”

Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.

One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.


for further exploration: a play on foreign aid, a graphic novel on palestinian non-violence, and a trans/genderqueer poetry collection

Just a short post today to direct you to a few cool things:

  • Award-winning Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe‘s new show Cooking Oil centers around the murder of an East African girl who was illegally selling cooking oil to pay for school. From Cooking Oil’s website: “Layering traditional and contemporary music, dance, chant, and images and material of aid, this production playfully interrogates in/dependence and the gaze at a suffering Other.” The play just had its US premiere over the weekend.
  • Written in Arabic, Irene Nasser‘s new graphic novel tells the story of the nonviolent resistance of Palestinian residents in the West Bank village of Budrus. A fifteen-year-old girl named Iltizam began protesting alongside the village boys, participated in their fathers’ strategy talks, and encouraged the girls at school to join her in peaceful demonstrations to replant trees pulled up by bulldozers. If you can’t read Arabic, you might take a look at Julia Bacha’s award-winning documentary on Budrus and Iltizam’s mother, Ayed Morar, who organized the action while her daughter galvanized the community.
  • Nightboat Books has published the “first-ever collection of poetry by trans and genderqueer writers.” Edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics boasts 55 diverse poets along with their individual “poetic statements.”