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


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.

indignadas: women, art, and protest

Indignadas: June 2013. Turkey María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: June 2013, Turkey
María María Acha-Kutscher

The Woman in Red. She’s become the symbol of protests in Turkey, and the image is fitting: approximately half of the protestors in Turkey are female. And much of what they oppose is Prime Minister Erdoğan’s attempts to exclude women from public spaces by failing to address violence against women, declaring that women should have three children, and promoting abortion restrictions. What better response than to fill these spaces with women who refuse to leave?

Women were instrumental in Egypt’s protests, and they faced frequent sexual harassment and assault–the most chilling approach to keeping women from the public sphere. Look at gender-based violence as a cultural problem, it’s clear that intimate partner violence reflects the idea of women as property, while street harassment and assault serve to keep women from public spaces, to reassert male ownership of the public sphere. Still, Egyptian women continue to fill Tahrir Square, protesting with their voices and their bodies.

And their art. Art has always been central to protest, from creative chants and protest songs that unite marchers and amplify their voices to papier-mâché puppets and performance art calling attention to the protestors’ message. Of course, protest also inspires art that captures the moment and goes beyond the street.

Indignadas (Outraged Women) is a series of images of women in public protests. The first stage focused on Spain, while the second stage, which began this June, expands the project to record the acts of women from around the world. María María Acha-Kutscher, a Peruvian artist based in Spain, turns photographs from witnesses into drawings.

In her own words, “[t]he aim of Indignadas series is to make visible, claim and place the woman at the center of this social struggle. A memory register to remind future generations that social changes throughout history were made by women and men together.”

Indignadas: 25s 2012. Alrededores del Congreso, Madrid María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: 25s 2012. Alrededores del Congreso, Madrid
María María Acha-Kutscher

What makes this project truly stand out is Acha-Kutscher’s insistence on women’s bodies as “support for the political message” instead of objects for the male gaze. This conscious attempt to reconsider women’s bodies in art and in the public sphere reflects a critical understanding of the way that women protest with their bodies by simply existing in public spaces.

Women and girls are so often told where not to go. We are blamed when attacked in certain areas because we were in places not meant for us. But by being present in those places, we claim them. On Sunday, July 1, 2013, more than two years after the Arab Spring, at least 46 women protestors were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. Men keep attacking them, but women keep appearing, linking arms, and raising their voices.

They know that avoiding these public spaces does not necessarily make women safer. It only exacerbates the problem, completely turning the public sphere over to men and keeping women confined. These protestors act on behalf of all women, risking their own physical safety to demand real and lasting bodily integrity.

Their sacrifice should not be forgotten. You can contribute photographs to Indignadas by sending images along with the date and location to Minimum size (horizontal or vertical): 450X650 pixels. Maximum size (horizontal or vertica): 750X950 pixels.

Indignadas: June 2013. Brazil María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: June 2013, Brazil
María María Acha-Kutscher