Africa through the eyes of women artists
AFRICA: WOMEN'S ART, WOMEN'S LIVES by Betty LaDuke (Africa World Press,
At a moment when Africa approaches the year 2000 as poster child of the
anti-millennium-bereft of the "miracle" of high-tech, and equally bereft of
hope for the quarter of its population infected with HIV-producing a book
devoted to the art of African women may seem close to the borders of
self-indulgence. Yet I would argue that re-visioning Africa through the
eyes of its women artists is urgently needed, now more than ever.
I first encountered Betty LaDuke's work in 1985 through her COMPANERAS:
WOMEN, ART, AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN LATIN AMERICA. In the intervening years
she has produced WOMEN ARTISTS: MULTICULTURAL VISIONS and AFRICA THROUGH
THE EYES OF WOMEN ARTISTS, both widely acclaimed.
Nor does she confine her commentary to art. She wants us to grasp the
context of African, Latina, and Asian women's art within their daily lives
and within their indigenous communities. One poignant example emerges from
the collaborative work of Gurensi women living in polygamous households in
Ghana and Burkina Faso. Using cow dung, locust bean pods, smooth stones,
and pulverized red and black rock, every blank wall of their living space
is transformed into a canvas for their expressive designs. Collectively,
they decide what patterns and imagery they want to achieve, prepare the
surfaces and materials to be used, and work side by side to complete the
Invited to watch a demonstration of the entire process, LaDuke came to see
the decorated walls as "living sculptures with specially shaped interior
and exterior spaces that bore witness to rites of passage, birth, marriage,
and death. These were commonly shared traditions, uniquely enhanced by the
hands of women who, for centuries, had painted these walls each year,
developing a sense of pride in their own work as they created their own
form of BAMBOLSE [beauty]." It is a process echoed among quilt makers in
the U.S.-whose art was likewise almost uniformly ignored by art
"historians" until the feminist movement showed them how to see.
The author includes a wide range of women's art, from the more traditional
pottery of Togo and Mali, to the phenomenal Shona sculptures of Zimbabwe
with their blend of African and European influences, to spectacular
paintings by the revolutionary women artists/warriors of Eritrea.
I was especially drawn to her chapter on Cameroon, for this is where she
describes the vibrant and ongoing 300-year-old self-organization of women
known as ANLU, which has never hesitated to publicly confront men who
commit an offense against women. "Kom women were active feminists, dealing
with issues of social welfare and justice long before Western societies
were willing to unveil the taboos regarding discussion and prevention of
population explosion, incest, and physical abuse."
One intriguing story she relates is an episode in 1959 when 7,000 angry
women farmers unseated the party in power because the women "perceived a
threat to their land, which they regard as sacred." Reading this, I
couldn't help recalling brief references I've seen to the 1929 Igbo Women's
War in Nigeria, when women organized across tribal boundaries against both
the British overlords and their local chiefs, who erroneously believed they
could begin taxing the women for the first time in history.
Nineteen years after THIS BRIDGE CALLED MY BACK called upon white feminists
to do their own homework instead of expecting women of color to lead them
to enlightenment, it is heartening to see that Betty LaDuke has worked
ceaselessly to respond to this challenge. Can anyone who is serious about
women's liberation afford to do less?