Contemporary Women Artists of Africa Take The Stage at The Smithsonian

October 6, 2019

The reemergence of the right-wing rhetoric rooted in patriarchy has again brought up issues of the position of women a global scale. The demand to speak critically about male domination and misogyny is expressed from the #MeToo movement to TV series such as The Handmaids Tale. On the other hand, the fright of the non-white refugees revisited racism and the awful heritage of colonialism.

In the art world, all of those issues have been, and still are questioned, relating to the emancipatory practices and constant attempts to think of the society differently. In the past few years, there have been various surveys focused on the production of women artists belonging to other cultures, and currently, the most intriguing one features works by modernist and contemporary African women artists on display at The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

Left Aida Muluneh - Sai Mado Right Toyin Odutola - Untitled
Left: Aida Muluneh (b. 1974, Ethiopia) - Sai Mado (The Distant Gaze), 2016. Digital photograph / Right: Toyin Odutola (b. 1985, Ife, Nigeria) - Untitled (D. O. Back Study), 2011. Ballpoint pen ink on paper

The Concept

Under the curatorship by Karen E. Milbourne, the exhibition gathers many astonishing works expressed in different media by twenty-seven leading modern and contemporary artists from ten African countries, including Toyin Odutola, Zanele Muholi, Sokari Douglas Camp, Patience Torlowei, Wangechi Mutu, and Aida Muluneh, to name a few. The installment is set to up to underline the women’s articulation of important topics concerning politics, race, sexuality, identity, environment, etc.

The title purposely refers to the iconic 1970s feminist anthem I Am Woman to legitimize the efforts of African and contextualize them properly in historical terms. Milbourne explained:

The works of art and artists included in I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa reveals the compelling contributions of women to the issues that have defined their times. It also offers insights into one institution’s efforts to strengthen the diversity and inclusion of the artists represented within its collection.

Left Helga Kohl - Family Accommodation Right Bertina Lopes - Sto Sognando
Left: Helga Kohl (b. 1943, Silesia, Poland) - Family Accommodation/Portfolio Kolmanskop , 1994. Digital photograph / Right: Bertina Lopes (1924–1986, Maputo, Mozambique) - Sto Sognando? La Città è questa? (Am I dreaming? Is this the city?), 1958. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase and gift of Franco Confaloni and the Lopes Archives

The Works

Here it is important to note that all the works in the show are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. Spanning different approaches and themes, but also media like paintings, sculptures, ceramics, textile works, video projections and installation pieces, the show reveals a multitude of stylistic and conceptual preoccupations.

This particular exhibition is just an extension of an ongoing women’s initiative launched by the museum to increase the visibility of women in the arts through their programs. The museum started collecting modern and contemporary art from its earliest days in the 1960s, and five years ago the management realized that only 11% of the artists in the permanent collection were women. Ever since, their enormous efforts in changing these numbers paid off, and so the percentage of women in the museum’s collection has risen to 22%.

Left Frances Goodman - Skin on Skin Right Wangechi Mutu - Tree Woman
Left: Frances Goodman (b. 1975, Johannesburg, South Africa) - Skin on Skin, 2012. Faux pearl earrings, found leather car seat, adhesive / Right: Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972, Nairobi, Kenya) - Tree Woman, 2016. Paper pulp, soil, wood, rock, steel. Museum purchase, Women’s Initiative Fund

I Am at The Smithsonian

The visitors can learn from the current show about various female perspectives within the African context presented in a respectful manner which does not exoticize.

An illustrated, scholarly publication accompanies the exhibition.

I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa will be on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., until 15 March 2020.

Featured image: Carole Desbois - Portrait of Billie Zangewa. All images courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

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