Two Projects Helping Female Artists in Africa Find Their Voices

In many African countries, where career paths for women can still be limited to practical fields like nursing and teaching, the decision to attempt a career in art is seen as unrealistic. Female artists face enormous cultural and financial resistance. But a Johannesburg residency and an international art fair opening in Brooklyn next week aim to help some young women get a toehold on the ladder.

Stacey Gillian Abe’s installation at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which runs May 4 through 6 at Pioneer Works, the cultural center in the borough’s Red Hook neighborhood, would be provocative in any context, but given the patriarchal traditions of her native Uganda, its subject matter is all the more challenging: the objectification of women, and the sexual satisfactions of women.

It consists of a profusion of vaginas, molded out of clay and painted red, exaggeratedly open and arranged randomly on the floor. An olufe — a wooden pole in Lugbara, her spoken language — used to mix millet, stands upright, set not in a traditional mortar but in a toilet.

The title, “Enya Sa, ” referring to millet bread, a dietary staple, leaves little doubt that she’s challenging assumptions. “The whole idea is looking at satisfaction: food and sex,” Ms. Abe, 27, said in a Skype conversation from Johannesburg earlier this month. “At what point is it right to ask for something? It’s taboo in Uganda for women to talk about sex.”

Alka Dass, a 23-year-old artist from Durban, South Africa, will take on related themes at the fair, with subtler imagery. Her piece, “Little Lolitas,” is an arrangement of film reels partly covered by knitted jerseys. The top and bottom of the reels are bare, like torsos with shoulders and midriffs exposed. It nods to the way that young girls — the nymphets in the Vladimir Nabokov work that inspired Ms. Dass’s title — are treated as passive objects of male desire. The theme is recurrent in Ms. Dass’s feminist work, rooted in South Africa’s Indian community.

Alka Dass, a South African artist based in Durban, at the Project Space studio in Johannesburg, said she faced resistance from her family to her career in art. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

“Women in my community are completely covered except in the midriff,” she said. “The sari exposes that, so it becomes the most sexualized part of the body.”

The determination of these women to become artists was considered nearly subversive by their families. Ms. Abe endured a torrent of recrimination from family members who thought she was throwing her life away. Ms. Dass’s family disowned her.

Alka Dass’s “Little Lolitas,” film reels and wool jersey “wraps,” from 2017, will be at the 1-54 International Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works next weekend. It nods to the way that young girls are treated as passive objects of male desire. Credit The Project Space

 

TODD PITOCK

NY Times

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