Framing prejudice – African women in photography
In a small room in the basement level of the Royal Festival Hall, 50 or so people gather to listen to a talk on the exhibition we’re about to see: Reflections of the Self – five African women photographers.
The speaker and curator of the exhibition, Cameroonian Christine Eyene, introduces us to seven photographers who all explore the identity of the African woman in art. No longer just the mother, voluptuous female and object of male desire, these artists are reclaiming their identities through a camera lens, all the time aware of the stereotypes applied to them.
Their images subtly tackle the remaining taboos and injustices of a paternalistic society. The African woman is on show – alone, veiled or framed. The back stories are of female genital mutilation, being owned, watched, exhibited or raped.
All striking and a testament to the creativity that flourishes even without the collective will for it to do so, the stand outs were Zanele Muholi, from South Africa, whose portraits of herself dressed as a pageant queen and then as a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district; speak of the scrutiny and judgement of others. The symbolism of her work becoming apparent when we are told that Zanele is a lesbian and a victim of corrective rape.
Hélène Amouzou pictures are a haunting portrayal of the isolation and loss of identity of the African immigrant. Born and raised in Togo, Hélène migrates to Belgium and takes up photography. Her hazy self-portraits and pictures of her possessions: a small suitcase and a dress are set in a barren attic. Gone is the colour synonymous with African art. There is no laughter, no joys of motherhood, no pleasure in cooking for one’s husband, no immaculate presentation of self. All we are presented with is the artist herself, clothed or nude, accompanied by props, in hues of grey. And that should be enough.
But beyond the racial prejudice that has helped shape how the world perceives African women – and makes an exhibition like this necessary, what is clear by the end of Christine’s presentation is that the enemy is much closer to home. A South African minister last year refuses to open an exhibition of black women artists, claiming Zanele Muholi photographs of nude lesbian couples is “going against nation building.” The irony is the exhibition was on Constitution Hill, a heritage site where political prisoners were held during apartheid.
It seems that nearly two decades later, while all are free to travel and live where they please in post-apartheid South Africa, the prisons in the minds of many remain intact.