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.

celebrating transgender art

It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.

Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.

In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.

I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.

Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?

I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.

Artists

Musicians

Filmmakers and Theatre Artists

  • Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
  • Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions:  produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
  • D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)

Films

  • Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
  • Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
  • Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
  • Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.

Novels

  • Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
  • Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
  • Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
  • Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”

for further exploration: virago’s 40th, being gay in uganda/female in india, wondagurl

A few items for you to check out:

  • Virago, the publisher that focuses on women from Maya Angelou to Naomi Wolf and revived interest in Antonia White and Dodie Smith, celebrates turning 40 with a free e-book that includes Margaret Atwood, Claire Messud, Sarah Waters, and Elaine Showalter, to name a few. Need I say more?
  • Call Me Kuchu reveals what it’s like to live with Uganda’s state-sanctioned homophobia. Human rights activist David Kato, the country’s first openly gay man, was brutally murdered one year into the making of this film, which is in limited release.
  • I’m looking forward (with a heavy heart) to Petals in the Dust, a film that explores gendercide in India. According to the producers, 1 out of every 6 girls doesn’t make it to her 15th birthday. In their book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn say that “a little Indian girl dies from discrimination every four minutes.” I recommend Half the Sky and if you want to learn more about gendercide while you’re waiting for this film to come out.
  • Wondagurl is a 16-year-old music producer who has worked with, oh, just some guy named Jay Z. Watch this interview, get up off your butt, and do something.

black boy: images and imagination

“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”

–Richard Wright, Black Boy

I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.

Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.

I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.

I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.

Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.

I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”

bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”

Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.

And here’s a good soundtrack (which I found in Crunk Feminist Collective’s post today) to listen to while you’re reading. Please feel free to offer more suggestions in the comment section.


here, have some hot fruit with that shame

It’s summer, which means we can’t go two minutes without seeing an article on how to get the perfect “bikini bod” or a photo lauding some celebrity’s “post-baby body.” It’s our culturally approved method of body shaming. The media helpfully directs us to examples we should follow–women who have the money, time, and imperative to trim all the fat (or anything else they don’t like) from their bodies, or models who actually starve themselves on a regular basis.

But it’s not just images of “perfect” bodies. They like to insult us directly too. Even when women achieve phenomenal things, there’s still someone with a platform who reduces them to their physicality. This week’s example is John Inverdale, a presenter on the UK’s Radio 5 Live, who said of Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli: “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.’”

His statement serves to make women who don’t fit whatever cultural norm feel ugly and unworthy and to insist that women who achieve, particularly in traditionally male arenas, only do so because they are pleasing to look at. Inverdale is certainly not the only person to body shame Bartoli, as all kinds of assholes proved on Twitter. The Tumblr “Public Shaming” flipped body shaming on its head by preserving images of Tweets devoted to debasing Bartoli, thereby shaming the shamers. (Reading it will make you feel terribly sad about the world, but it’s useful if you know someone who thinks sexism doesn’t exist.)

Bartoli’s smart response implies that she didn’t let the insults ruin her win: “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

My response to body shamers–be they Inverdale, ignorant Tweeters, women’s magazines, or even “serious” news outlets–is a little Hot Fruit.

Out of Olympia, Washington, Hot Fruit describe themselves as “an all Diva 3 piece electronic band.” After they posted the above video for “Falling off the Grid,” YouTube and Reddit exploded in misogynist rage. As you can imagine, there was a lot of body shaming because that’s the first resort of sexist morons. But Hot Fruit don’t care!

Member Grace Ellis says, “Hot Fruit is a place where I began to work through my own acceptance of my power, my sexuality, my ability to be a happy person who doesn’t need to apologize for my failures. And this isn’t all about me: It’s about how I was socialized, and open acceptance of what is not ‘perfect,’ ‘immaculate,’ ‘virgin[al]’ to other people through showing my own personal work.”

Let’s not give a shit about bikini bodies anymore. Think of all the energy we could be putting toward something awesome instead, like our own Hot Fruit. You in?


creativity through chaos: ana molina hita

I have a very special post this week from Ana Molina Hita, a teacher and musician in Madrid. I came across Milagros, a band Ana formed with girls she teaches, on Kathleen Hanna‘s blog, and I was hooked. I contacted Ana, and she turned out to be clever, warm, funny, passionate, and engaging. She’s the kind of teacher kids dream of. In addition to Milagros, Ana started another project to nurture her students’ self-expression through writing. Please check out both of these inspiring and lovely projects. I promise you will love them.

Ana offers us her ideas on creativity and education. Take it away, Ana!

Milagros

Milagros

We often forget music is a language. Everybody seems to know the importance of learning different languages in order to travel, or what is even worse, in order to get a better job so we can get a better life, whatever.

In the last 30 years, we have faced a lot of changes in society. but, apart from this fever with foreign languages that, at least in Spain, is such a failure, nothing has really changed at school. Nowadays we learn Spanish and maths in the same way our parents did. There’s a hierarchy of subjects  that offends the principle of diversity and the principle of enjoying learning. We are facing a global crisis and we need solutions and people able to find those solutions. Here is the important point where creativity has massive significance because creativity is the process through which we create something in response to what we need.

Working on creativity at school doesn’t mean that everyone may be an artist. Most people relate creativity with music and art, but it has to do with life, with the will of kids to live. Creativity is an important tool for living better. Anyone can be creative. Everyone has skills or interests that can make their lives better. Helping kids to find those interests and skills should be our main goal at school.

To find what we like doing is such a blessing.

As a teacher, there’s a moment you realize you are not taking care of your pupils’ will to live. That’s when  you have to stop and wonder what is wrong.

I’m afraid the whole thing is wrong. That takes me to the pessimistic view where I’ve finally landed. But when it seems you can do nothing about it, at least you can try to spend quality time with your pupils whenever you are able.

The Writing Project I’ve been developing throughout my last 5 years at school is basically based on chaos. I just let my pupils write anything that crosses their minds in a little notebook. The less you tell them what to do, the more they write. It is important not to force them. They will write the day someone tells them they are good at it.

They like writing when they realize nobody is gonna mark their writings or judge them. They can tell you how fat their uncle is with the same passion they tell you they’re heartbroken.

I don’t know how pure my pupils are (I guess 100%), but I’m pretty sure their writings are pure as gold. As a friend of mine once said, it’s like watching raining. And funny as hell.

We cannot pretend to instill love for literature in our children if they don’t love language, and they won’t be able to love language if they can’t even use language when teachers come into the classroom. To love language, we have to enjoy using it. And I can prove school is not the place where children are most allowed to use it (I’m afraid I tell them to shut up around 24 times every 24 hours).

Politicians and their education laws do not help at all. They insist on keeping things the way they are. They use education to keep culture always the same. We teach the way others taught us. This way teaching becomes a process of symbolic reproduction.

They make us believe they are improving education by changing the name of certain subjects and the way we evaluate students. We should stop changing the way we evaluate our students as if that was the most important part of the process. The most important part of the process is the process itself.

As Sir Ken Robinson says, what pushes a child to not stop walking is not the goal of going walking everywhere. It’s just his/her nature to keep on trying. And same happens to learning.

Education is the place where learning happens. Kids can do nothing but learning. And it seems we are not making the best of this fact.

Milagros is within a Creativity Project. It’s not only about music. It’s about the will to live that children possess. It is about finding tools, interests and habits that could make our lives better.

I´ll never know if it works, but meanwhile we´re having fun.

Ana Molina Hita is a school teacher and musician from Madrid. She teaches music to kids from 8 to 13 in a public school where kids come from all over the world. Apart from Milagros, she  plays in a pop band called Hola a Todo el Mundo.

Even though she claims that the essence of creativity and the essence of schooling are contradictions in terms, she believes there’s a need to incorporate creativity into our educational system, despite the system.

Check out Ana’s many projects:

http://chericann.tumblr.com/
http://milagros.bandcamp.com/
https://soundcloud.com/holaatodoelmundo
milagros

girls creating culture through STEM

Here’s a chronological list of things I wanted to be when I grew up: astronaut, surgeon, marine biologist, fashion designer, singer, actress, writer.

When I was twelve, my science teacher, an awesome woman who saw something in me and did her best to nurture it, recommended me for a camp at Miami University for kids who were “gifted and talented” in math and science. Anyone who knows me now likely finds this laughable, but it’s true that I once excelled in those subjects. I was even pulled out of fourth-grade math for one-on-one enrichment (i.e., logic problems) because I needed more of a challenge.

At that point in my life, math and science camp was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I got to live in a dorm with girls from around Ohio, girls who knew nothing about my life in Cincinnati, so I could be whatever I wanted. I thought our resident assistant, a college student herself, was the coolest person in the world. With my new friends, I shook my skinny butt in the dorm hallway to Sir-Mix-a-Lot, wandered around the leafy campus like I was in a movie, scribbled down equations, and engaged in some pretty cool science experiments.

And then I came back home, entered junior high, and forgot I ever cared about science and math. My friends were all smart, but suddenly the only things that mattered were gossip, clothes, and boys. Cheerleading, which I tried out for while plainly saying to the judges, “I can’t do this.” And musical theatre. It became very cool to be able to sing because then maybe you could become famous or something.

I ended up immersing myself in theatre and music. It may be that I was drawn to them over math and science, but what’s more likely is that I was more comfortable with a script, a body mic, and a pair of jazz shoes. I was told in so many ways by society that the arts were a fine things for both girls and boys to explore, whereas math and science was the realm of boys. Theatre did a lot for my self-esteem and self-expression, whereas math competitions and science fairs seemed like ways to make me feel unworthy and incapable. I felt safe with language, creativity, and performance.

By the time I saw the connections between these subjects when I made a rather pitiful attempt at music theory, I had developed the idea that my brain just didn’t work that way, that I wasn’t cut out for math and science. Pretty odd for someone once considered “gifted and talented” in those very subjects.

But this story plays out over and over again in schools around the world. Girls typically turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) around the same age I did. In Australia, the gender disparity today is greater than it was in the 1980s, which was the very decade in which I racked up my math and science achievements but kept my pull-ups in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge to seven so as not to embarrass Kevin Zinke, who had managed 10. (Along with the notion that girls should not beat boys at their own games, I possessed freakish upper-body strength as a child.)

AAUW’s 2010 study “Why So Few?” reveals that girls underrate their skills in these subjects:

[G]irls assess their mathematical ability lower than do boys with equivalent past mathematical achievement. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard in subjects like math, where boys are considered to excel. Because of this, girls are less likely to believe that they will succeed in a STEM field, and, therefore, are less likely to express interest in a STEM career.

[G]ender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school and increase in high school and college, with girls reporting less confidence than boys do in their math and science abilities. In part, boys develop greater confidence in STEM through experience developing relevant skills.

So how could someone have changed my mind about math and science even after the damage was done? By telling me that men still control all the fields that make up entertainment and that this is partly because they make up the vast majority of music producers, sound engineers, film producers, film directors and editors, technical directors, composers, designers, game developers, etc., etc. Cyndi Lauper just won the Tony Award for best score (Kinky Boots), and she was the first woman to do so. It only took 67 years of Tony Awards.

There are some innovative programs out there that are trying to increase girls’ participation in STEM by drawing on their interests in creativity, performance, and entertainment–turning girls into creators of culture instead of simply consumers, actors instead of objects. If it draws them further into math and science, maybe we’ll also gain more research on women’s health and more creative ideas for dealing with global warming, saving honeybees, or promoting sustainable infrastructure.

Gender Amplified supports women music producers by motivating girls through workshops like “Turntablism 101” and “Music Production on Smart Phones.” Rock It: Science, a partnership between Girls Rock! Seattle and the Pacific Science Center “teaches girls the underlying physics of sound and music as well as audio engineering concepts..in the context of writing music and creative expression.”

Nevin Erönde, a sound engineer, and Andrea Hasselager, a copywriter and interactive designer, created Game Girl Workshop, teaching Palestinian girls how to develop video games. Black Girls CODE offers the National STEM Video Game Challenge, “Build a Webpage in a Day,” and iPod film school. And Girls Scouts in Los Angeles can now work toward a video game design patch!

Reel Girls supports girl-created media through instruction and mentoring. Check out their award-winning videos!  Columbia Public Schools, Stephens College, and Columbia Access Television have come together to offer Citizen Jane Summer Film Academy, which helps girls create short films that are aired on local television.

Ah, to be twelve all over again. I’d take all the workshops I could afford. And do fifteen pull-ups.