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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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: frida’s love letters, playwright amy wheeler, feminist comics, artist larissa sansour

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Badass Frida Kahlo in a family photo

A few things you should know about before you take this day any further:

  • Frida Kahlo is one of my ultimates. Every move the woman made was pure art–paintings, clothing, homes, relationships, politics. Given the amount of physical and emotional trauma she faced, it’s amazing that she insisted on seeing life through so much color instead of turning to darkness. It turns out that she could have been a damn fine poet too.  Somehow I had no idea that there were facsimiles of her diaries floating around (see The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, but, look, I hate to link to Amazon, so see if you can find it somewhere else). From this book, Brainpickings offers a few images of Frida’s letters to her husbandDiego Rivera, and they are divine. Here’s a peak [capitalization hers]:

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

Reminds me of Pablo Neruda. Did they inspire each other? Someone research this and write a lovely essay on it.

 

“I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.”

 

  • Warning bells go off in my head and my belly immediately begins stoking dragon fire whenever I hear, “I’m a feminist, but….” Comics are safer than dragon fire, however, so feast your eyes on The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism. I’m not going to pretend not to notice that the afterward comes from the controversial Hugo Schwyzer, but don’t let it stop you from at least taking a look. It’s poignant and clever.

 

“The issue of women’s rights is not only necessary to address for its own sake, but also because it opens a magnitude of questions as to how we perceive reality and why it is important to question the very system by which our humanity is constructed and by how we perceive things.


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.


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.”