Where are all the African women artists?

Published on African Women’s evelopment Fund/Blog AWDF, August 9, 2011.

On the 4th of August 2001, I attended the Adventurers in the Diaspora Series at Accra’s Golden Tulip. The topic for discussion was “Revitalising Ghana’s National Museum of Arts”, and judging by the huge turnout the subject was clearly of interest to a large number of people. There were several ‘distinguished’[1] persons on the panel. This is how members of the panel were described in the event posted on Facebook:

Mrs. Frances Ademola -artist and owner of Ghana’s first private art gallery, the LOOM: … // 

… Our conversation got me thinking. Who are the African women artists and where are they? I am especially interested in African women artists who use their art as a tool to provoke social consciousness. I started to create a mental list of African women artists that I know are doing this and then I thought, “I should blog about this and ask people to add to the list”. So that’s what I’m doing. My list is only going to comprise of people that I know in some way, and for the sake of brevity I will highlight only 10 African women artists. Either I have read their books, watched them perform, heard them speak, seen a trailer for their movie or engaged with them in some way – even if it’s only been via twitter :)

Do me a favour and add on to this list in the comments box. Let’s track who the African women artists are, what they do, and where they are.

Here’s my list:

Frances Ademola? – I’m a bit confused as to whether to add her to the list. Is she an art gallery owner or an artist? Is the owner of an art gallery also an artist because they have an artistic eye or does an artist always create? AiD’s programme described her as an artist but in googling her I have come across this interview, which quoted her as saying, “I’m the eye of the buyer. It’s a good thing that I’m not an artist”[3].

Nneka – Nigerian/German songstress who sings in English and Pidgin about the need for Africans to take responsibility for the problems we face on the continent (The Uncomfortable Truth), jogs our collective memory on the issues confronting Nigerian society whilst reminding us of the importance of remembering Ken Saro Wiwa and the causes for which the prominent environmental activist died , (Soul is Heavy) and the need for us all to recognize our inherent beauty (Beautiful).  Nneka agreed in 2010 to work as an Arts Ambassador for AWDF and I’m really looking forward to exciting collaborations between her and AWDF.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka – One of Africa’s most powerful voices who also lends her support to many admirable initiatives. Yvonne Chaka Chaka sits on the AWDF South Africa board, is a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health, serves as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Malaria and also has her own NGO, The Princess of Africa Foundation. I personally met Yvonne when she attended AWDF’s 10th anniversary celebrations in November 2010 and I was struck by how nice Yvonne was as a person. Sometimes when you meet huge stars you’re disappointed because they act like divas but Yvonne is niceness personified.

Wanuri Kahiu –I get most of my updates on Wanuri via her twitter handle @wanuri . I have seen the trailer for her film Pumzi and unfortunately missed an opportunity to see the full length film at the last Environmental Film Festival of Accra yet what I have seen of her trailer has been enough to convince me that this is the type of work that organizations like AWDF need to fund if we are going to use the arts as a tool for gender empowerment. In researching Wanuri further I came across her blog and it looks like she is not only nifty with the camera but with words too.

Ama Ata Aidoo – Where do I start from when it comes to this doyenne of African literature? Like many people in Ghana, I first came across Ama Ata Aidoo in secondary school as “Dilemma of a Ghost” and “Anowa” were on our reading list. At university I decided to write my dissertation on the concept of ‘home’ as seen through the works of Ama Ata Aidoo and Buchi Emecheta (another stalwart of African women’s literature). In 2008, I met Auntie Ama face to face and was thrilled to be able to interview her for AWDF’s very first e-newsletter.

Asa – I have been told Asa is my lookalike but that’s not why I have included her on this list J Recently I’ve heard one of her songs, which touches on the issue of sexual abuse. Please let me know what the title is if you know the song I’m describing – she sings about a young girl who has been abused and somehow the girl’s Father is involved.

Jessica Horn – Jessica is a personal friend, poet and an all round inspiration to me. She’s the author of “Speaking in tongues” and a dynamic member of the African Feminist Forum’s steering committee. Jessica is also a women’s rights consultant focusing on issues of health, women’s rights and social change.

Leila Dzani – I first heard of Leila when her film “Sinking Sands” came out. I eventually watched ‘Sinking Sands’ with a friend and immediately afterwards was interviewed by Joy Fm for our perspectives on the film. Although we liked many aspects of the film we both felt that it’s a shame the male lead had what many may perceive as an excuse to be violent to his wife, especially as domestic violence is such an every day occurrence all over the word. Despite this, and upon continued reflection on the film I feel that ‘Sinking Sands’ is an important milestone in the Ghanaian film industry.  The lead actress Ama K Abebrese did an amazing job and was well rewarded with an African Movie Award for Best Actress in a lead role. Kudos to Leila for highlighting the issue of domestic violence.

Yaba Badoe – ‘The Witches of Gambaga’ is a powerful documentary, which brings us the real life stories of women condemned to live as witches at the Gambaga camp in Northern Ghana. I first saw this documentary at the 3rd African Feminist Forum in Dakar, Senegal, and subsequently at its premiere in Ghana. ‘The Witches of Gambaga’ always provokes a variety of reactions in the audience – shock, disbelief that women are accused of witchcraft in this day and age, and a strong desire to change the status quo. It is my hope that this documentary remains a powerful tool for creating a more just world for women and men.

So in your opinion where all the African women artists who use their art as a tool for social justice and the empowerment of women? Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Programme Officer for Fundraising & Communications, AWDF. (full text).

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