“In the accepted version of Black female reality that predominates in mainstream images there is no subtlety to our experience. We are always portrayed as lacking in complexity, as transparent. We are all surface, lacking in depth” –Lorna Simpson.
In an interview with 10and5, South Afrikan artist, Laura Windvogel also a.k.a Lady Skollie, was asked whether or not she felt that art was a form of protest. Her response was that even in the most subtle ways art was is a protest. From crude drawings carved into desks to purposeful nationhood oriented dressing, as with the case of famous Mexican Frida Kahlo. The art of women that speaks to their lived experiences, regardless of the level of subtlety, is a form of protest. It is important then we question the importance of the role that Afrikan feminism articulates or plays in the art world. Both in relation to the practice as well as the discourse that accompanies it.
Feminist art discourse is a new-ish canon. A canon pertaining to selective inclusion and legitimation within the art realm, consisting of works and texts that are not fully and fairly representational of any gender that is not male. It challenges the hierarchy existent within the art space that positions men at the top. That privileges them in terms of spaces occupied by artists; making the main narrative that of men.
Feminist art was primarily informed by second wave feminism of the 1970s in Europe and America. Women contested social roles and rights allocated to them that they believe stripped them of their agency. In many ways this feminism was disruptive to the social order and has made the world rethink the many norms existent within society that feed into patriarchal ideology. This then is extended to art. It is a combination of looking for the many women who painted and were slighted and excluded from “the masters”. A re-look at what informed “the beauty” of the women depicted actually meant. What the depictions of the forms of representation of the female body within art connoted – both about the structure of society and the power dynamics between men and women of that time. What exactly did the paintings of the body echo in terms of the attitudes held concerning women and their societal role?
Feminist art took a step further by also challenging the role that art would and continue to play in terms of public discourse on society and the capturing of history through its means. It shook the foundation when it went beyond simply asking what can art do and went on to ask what art can mean. New methods of representation and types of methodologies are employed when texts are being produced about art works and the ideologies that they are grounded in. Through doing this, Griselda Pollock states that this creates a “virtual feminist museum”. A space and way that “intervenes to elaborate other visualities and rhetorics” (Pollock, 2003). This change comes with the politics of the sexuality having shifted again.
“On the one hand women artists are less fearful of creating work that sates the appetites of the straight male viewer. And gender identity itself has become far more fluid with the growing social acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. Instead of being defined as a state rooted in nature, gender is now seen as something that might be exhibited, acquired, acknowledged and fed back to the subjects as they move and interact in the world” (Heartney, 2013).
Women’s studies are not just about women but about the social systems and the ideological sentiments which sustain domination of men over women within other mutually intersecting regimes of power like class and race. (Pollock, 2003).
Michele Wallace in her essay Why Are There No Great Black Artists? states that principles introduced into this feminist canon were still exclusionary to women of colour. Even in the way in which the politics and problems of representation in art were grappled with. Wallace says of Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Are There No Great Women Artists?
“…she adds to her formulations again and again the words ‘and Black artists too’. The key problematic among feminist theorists of color in our debates around identity and ‘otherness’ has been this notion of ‘and Blacks too’” (Wallace, 1992).
What the then feminist discourse failed to recognise even in the “progressive” art sphere was that by grouping Black people as one single identity; a single Black experience. It limits and confines artists of colour in the way they creatively express themselves and limits the meaning of their work. “Black art” becomes an “other” within the sphere of art, in many ways denying it its function. “At its simplest a Black show is an exhibition of works by artists whose skins are black” (Patton, 1998).
Relegating Black art as an “other” within the global art space has erased multiple narratives of said artists whose skin is black. That has led to what Wallace describes as “the contested narratives of Black culture”. The narratives of the Black culture are contested because they have been relegated to being an additional appendix of the art culture. “Black culture” is then limited to one narrative and denied the ability within the cultural art space to be multifaceted. In addition, what the Black cultural sphere produces has been dictated to that it must center on the identity of the artist.
Darby English, in the chapter “Beyond Black Representational Space.” Speaks on how once art is deemed “Black art,” audiences approach the work in heavy anticipation of locating the symbols and signs of their own often misinterpreted meaning of what Black identity is. The lack of engagement with the subject matter both by scholars and audiences has allowed for English to conclude that Black art occupies the space as a place filler. It is so that institutions can say they have Black art.
It is at this intersection that Black women artists find themselves located where the world has come to understand that all woman are white and all Blacks are men. A world where neither the ‘feminist bubble’ nor the ‘Black artist’ identity offer a means into the art space. The various narratives or artistic expressions of anyone who isn’t either a white man, a white woman or a very particular type of Black man. The same can be said of the South Afrikan context. Which is why there is a need for an Afrikan feminist intervention within the art space. The institutions located within the region need to begin including Afrikan feminist ideologies when framing the actual ever changing identity of the Afrikan artist(s).
At a talk on Afrikan femininity held at Stellenbosch University, Oyewumi Oyeronke stated from the onset that she viewed gender not only as a construct but a colonial category. She spoke in depth on how through research looking into the Yoruba language she came to find that there were no gender categories when it came to the names that defined relations to one another. In Yoruba she found there was no word for wife, daughter, son, sister. She also spoke on what it meant to be dependent and defend indigenous intellectuals. i am incredibly aware of the fact that in this article much of my theory is drawn off Black feminist texts from “the west.” This is because very few texts are written home about current day post-colonial Afrikan feminist art; something that Oyeronke mentions is lacking in the academic space.
It seems many a time that the “Afrikan art” sphere is dominated by multiple misconceptions and flawed framings of what Afrikan art is. It has been degraded to a homogenised practice of collecting and housing looted ancient relics belonging to indigenous cultures in western museums. Very few texts exist within the discipline of art history that encompass Black Afrikan art of today. It seems that again access to the category of “Black art” is conditional and further perpetuates this very skewed notion of what Afrikan art is.
In an interview with art historian Yvette Gresle, South Afrikan artist Katlego Tlabela speaks on the expectations set for Black students. How they are treated in regards to the work that they produce, particularly Michaelis School of Fine Art, because of the precedent set by produced work that is feeding directly into this misconception. When asked to comment on the line and the deeper meaning of ‘Unless the Black artist establishes a “Black aesthetic” he will have no future at all”, incorporated in his artwork titled ‘Multi-racial, Multi-disciplinary and Multi-cultural’, Tlabela responded, “It was informed by various texts, conversations and readings.
For example: After being asked about my selection for majors at Michaelis, a lecturer mentioned that the school needed more Black painters. At first i celebrated the statement. But then i became confused and infuriated about it. i didn’t understand why race had to be a factor. In a History of Art lecture we learned about South Afrikan artist John Mohl and how people expected him to depict township scenes instead of landscapes. i also came across an interview with Michaelis graduate Nandipha Mntambo in a book called Positions: Contemporary Artists in South Afrika. She recalled how her Blackness was read into her work and how she has been critically positioned. When discussing how her work and her Blackness has been compartmentalised, Mntambo said that she ‘just happens to be Black’. Her words strongly resonate with me and this was a key text for me during the course of making the work. (Tlabela, 2014).
Returning to Oyewumi Oyeronke and her voiced thoughts and theory on gender in Africa as a colonial construct. It seems this attitude better supports the works of Afrikan artists across gender lines. The accessibility of their work and the accessibility of other forms of art in relation to them as well as other narratives. Gender binaries in terms of the Afrikan artists operating now has led very much to the erasure of artists whom do not seem to fit into the category of women and certain type of Black man in relation of the work produced. In South Afrika many of the institutions that taught art, specifically to Black people, would gender art practices and often a time related “crafts” to women as seen with Rorke’s Drift Art Centre.
Says artist Bongi Dhlomo who was a student at the art centre in 1978, “two art forms were treated separately. My eldest sister had studied home economics, which fell under the craft side of the centre. i went to Rorke’s Drift to study art and i did not consider my sister’s qualification as equal to mine. When i worked at the Afrikan Art Centre in Durban i was again confronted by the division between art and craft” (Dhlomo, 2004). To a large extent almost exclusively one sex practised the different art forms: weaving by women, apart from some designs by men; fine art by men, apart from a few women. Though this has changed, the attitude that Black women are not quite as capable of being able to produce art by its simplest definition is still prevalent.
Afrikan feminism directs us to a way of rejecting notions that otherwise feed into a patriarchal capitalist, Eurocentric value method. This has been taken up most recently by the art collective iQhiya. An all Black women collective who have sort to challenge this institutional norm that still erases the experiences of Black women from the art narrative. An institutionalised norm that bases usefulness of art on the gender of the person who is presenting it. Which resonates with the line “our ideological task as feminists is to understand this system and our political task is to end it.. A spirit of feminist solidarity and mutual respect based on frank, honest and open discussion of difference with each other”, from the Afrikan feminist charter. Said the group in an interview with Layla Leiman,
“As highlighted before, the lack of visibility of Black women in the industry is disconcerting, when we are qualified, talented, involved in residency programs, as well as acquiring awards. We wanted to make ourselves more visible. We noticed Black male artists were given a kind of attention that wasn’t easily granted to Black women artists even though we make good art. We would think that our experiences as artists of colour would be the same but it is far from that. Working as a unit has given us more exposure. We laugh at the fact that our homogeneous status is far more appealing than our own individual endeavours. Now we are seen as professional artists. This is why it was important to form the group; to be seen”.
i see Afrikan feminism as very pragmatic which is why there is so much “gender fluidity”. It’s not because men and women “want to see what is on the other side” but rather that it’s about the action and not the gender of the person who has undertaken the responsibility to see it through. But that said, Afrikan feminism is also about the acknowledgement of the colonial legacy in Afrika and what it has meant in terms of identity formation. Drawing on one of the principles of the Afrikan feminist charter “We have multiple and varied identities as Afrikan Feminists. We are Afrikan women we live here in Afrika and even when we live elsewhere, our focus is on the lives of Afrikan women on the continent.” This enables us to connect this principle to the art being produced that are examples of Afrikan feminism in action.
In her exhibition titled Hottentot Skollie, work centred on Sara Baartman. Lady Skollie tackles the politics of the Black nude female body in art. Says Skollie, “The show is entirely inspired by the life and tragedy of Sarah Baartman. Titled Hottentot Skollie, i hope the exhibition will provoke thoughts about objectification. i will explore the hypersexualised way we consume the female form” (Windvogel, 2016). Though a re-engagement at the way the white female body has been represented in art though the work of feminist art historians like Griselda Pollock has been vital. It still does not speak to how the Black female nude body has been depicted in art and the history that accompanies it. Tackling the painful and complicated tie between the life of Sara Baartman and the prevalent attitudes and nature of the objectification especially of the Black female body in the present day. Lady Skollie draws a link to her own body in an attempt to find parallels between her and Baartman, especially as a Black woman.
A history of Sara Baartman would otherwise not be encompassed using the western feminist principles, because there is no engagement with the colonial history. That history that played an incredibly large and humiliatingly painful role in shaping Sara Baartman’s life. Lady Skollie’s work highlights how hyper-sexualised the Black woman’s body has been presented in contrast to that of the white woman, historically. It is a work that has asked the artist herself how embedded is what can be described as shame of the Black female body. It is also work that questions the validity of the tensions between the “coloured” and the “Black” identity. And this is seen in the nature of the style of painting, the colours, and the anger seen in the composition of the paintings. She visits sexuality in this series of works, we are not presented with persons, but body parts and this, as she says, the hypersexualised presentation of the Black female form. What, the work asks, is it different between what is lived now and Sara Baartman’s lived experience as a human exhibition?
The counter of this the feminist approach has been that of artist Dada Khanyisa. She has placed the emphasis on being a non-gender conforming artist, especially in relation to the artworks produced under the name The Mighty Whale. As Oyewumi argues, “gender has not historically been an important organising principle or a first order issue” (Bakare-Yesu, 2006). In doing so, Khanyisa has disrupted the norm in two ways. One that the refusal of a gendered identity, as audiences and scholars we are immediately forced to engage deeper with the work. We are given no signs by the name nor the artist’s gender identity to look for in the work. Another way that Khanyisa is a disruption to the norm is that the work has proved that gender is not the decider of what good art is comprised of. Or the identity of the artist.
The question posed by Darby on the role of the Black art, “does black art serve a purpose aside from filling/occupying the category of ‘Black art?’ ”. i would answer in the case of Khanyisa, that yes it does. The refusal of the gender category in many ways has freed Khanyisa from the confines of what artistic expression is expected from Black women and Black men coming out of these institutions. The subject matter that Khanyisa has had the ability to engage with is more fluid, less expected, sometimes less heavy and a reinterpretation of the aforementioned ‘Black aesthetic’.
The case of Khanyisa, iQhiya and Lady Skollie demonstrate how important it is that these are the narratives captured when one eventually asks what “Afrikan art” is or what it was when looking back. That it goes beyond an Afrikan name, it goes beyond stereotypical expectations of Afrikans using their art to solely speak to whiteness. One must be able to revisit Afrikan art of this time and be able to use the discourse generated to speak to the lack of its inclusion in earlier times. These examples must be used in the slow cultivation of a different framing of what the Black female body is. What it represents in art, when other people visit national museums and exhibitions are curated and displayed in different parts of the world.
The principles of Black and Afrikan feminism must be able, at least in the Afrikan context, to dismiss the gender binaries and finally push the conversation further. Art must ask itself what purpose it serves. Collectives like iQhiya, which fundamentally exist to bring attention to the lack of Black female narratives and artistic expressions must be captured as to break the silence. Recorded as a moment of change. Without doing that, the process resets itself with a new generation entering knowledge institutions undertaking the “fact” that the Black woman has no space in art that she has created for herself.