I Am: Contemporary Women Artists are Rewriting the Narratives of Africa

Revealing the social, political and economic history that affects this time in their life, the National Museum of African Art’s exhibition “I Am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” presents the works of 27 women artists from 10 African nations addressing issues including the environment, identity, race, sexuality, social activism and faith.

The materials to make their art are as unique to each artist. What each share is that the media is integral to the underlying message of the work: celebrating and honoring the strength, beauty and power of women. 

Nike Davies-Okundaye. Liberal Women Protest March I & II. 1995, acrylic on canvas. Gift of Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders in honor of the artist Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye.

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye’s “Liberal Women Protest I and II” is an homage to traditional tribal use of textiles. She portrays women in their finest attire engaged in nonviolent forms of protest against a backdrop of the historical textile art of adire. Using Dupon silk and synthetic thread to unite the idea of sewing as a matter of identity, Billie Zangewa created “Constant Gardener” from luminous material.

There is elegance in Patience Torlowei’s eye stopping “Esther,” a stunning silk gown with painted scenes against an illustrious gold background that depict the struggles in the Niger Delta with diamond extractions and the hazards of war. The power of the piece lies both in its beauty—Torlowei has an internationally recognized design house—and in its underlying meaning of the power of love as it is a memorial in honor of her deceased mother. 

In portraiture, Toyin Odutola—“motivated to test and unsettle binaries like male and female, black and white, self and represented-self”—goes beyond the surface in her ballpoint pen ink on paper “Untitled (D. O. Back Study),” while Zanele Muholi’s “Pam Dlungwana, Vredhoek, Cape Town” is a black and white photograph of woman who looks directly at the viewer, providing global recognition, respect and validation for South African lesbians.

Zanele Muholi. Pam Dlungwana, Vredhoek, Cape Town. 2011, ed. 2/8, silver gelatin print. Gift of Diane and Charles Frankel.

Pottery is diverse. There are museum art pieces like Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo’s “Reduced Mixed-Color Symmetrical Piece,” which draws on inspiration from works as diverse as the ancient Cyclades to Jean Arp and suggests the image of “a plump woman with hands on hips, or a sassy friend with bold hoop earrings.” Ghada Amer’s cast and polished stainless steel “Blue Bra Girls” is a tribute to women who risk all for their beliefs inspired by the 2011 Reuters photograph of a veiled young woman whose blue bra was exposed as she was dragged and beaten during protests in Tahrir Square, and which became a rallying cry for thousands of Egyptian women.

Quirky and elegant, one red aluminum kitchen pot with a carved out map of the world is ready to boil over. The politically charged work—”Untitled,” by Batoul S’Himi—is from the series World Under Pressure.

Batoul S’Himi. Untitled, from the series World Under Pressure. 2011. Aluminum. Museum purchase.

Some objects weren’t created, but instead transformed into art. Frances Goodman’s wall hanging “Skin on Skin” is created from a cascade of faux pearls strewn across old black leather seat of a car, left-overs of a romantic encounter. Using paper pulp, soil, wood, rice and steel to reflect our co-existence within the magnificence of nature, Wangechi Muti created “Tree Woman,” described as a “rhizomatous-muscularity, bound and bodacious figure that is enigmatic and emergent.” “The Last Supper Revisited,” a mixed-media installation by Sue Williamson, reveals the last houses of the multiracial District Six neighborhood demolished by South Africa’s apartheid government. The artist revisited the site and looked through debris  to record the last supper at her friend Naz Gool-Ebrahim’s home ten years before. 

While “Esther,” as a work of haute couture, records of the exploitation of the mines, Helga Kohl records in digital photographs—”Works in Windhoek,” “Namibia Family Accommodation/Portfolio Kolmanskop”—of abandoned homes and shops left in the ghost town that emerged once the riches of the diamond mines were exhausted.

Ultimately, across a diversity of formats and focuses, these bold works offer viewers the opportunity to see beyond the confines of galleries focused on the African continent—and to think, instead, of African experiences in a more intimate and global context.

“I am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” is on display until July 5, 2020 at the National Museum of African Art.


Sheila Wickouski is an art and culture writer.