Princess Politics - Women on top: Subverting subordination

15 September 2015 - 02:13 By Mary Corrigall

When two Angolans stood in front of Kimathi Donkor's Kombi Continua (2010) on show at the 29th São Paulo Biennial, they gasped "It's our queen!" "They recognised [the figure] was Princess Nzinga before they read the caption," said Donkor, sitting in an art studio next to Gallery Momo in Parktown North. It was a source of pride and delight for the British-born artist of Ghanaian, Anglo-Jewish and Jamaican extraction, as his paintings transplant the famous African princess into contemporary clothes and scenes.In Kombi Continua, she is depicted riding on the back of a motorbike with an AK-47 in her hand. According to the famous story, when the princess met the Portuguese governor, he did not offer her a chair during negotiations, and placed a floor mat for her to sit on, which in Mbundu custom was appropriate only for subordinates. Thus, to preserve dignity, Princess Nzinga sat on the back of one of her servants.It was a pivotal moment in history that Donkor has represented in the present in the work When Shall We 3 ?He's subverted the scene; instead of the Princess using one of her servants as a chair, she uses a white woman dressed in quasi-dominatrix gear.The result is a highly contentious work, on show at Some Clarity of Vision, at Gallery Momo Johannesburg. It's bound to be a conversation starter, given South African's heightened interest in racial debates.Said Donkor: "What interests me about South Africa is the interplay between the (different racial) groups and how race and gender is mediated via visuals. Not just by artists, but everyone, how we structure society through the visual."Donkor is particularly fascinated by famous motifs, not only of Nz inga, first rendered by an Italian priest called Cavazzi, but all sorts of imagery such as Frans Post's landscapes of Brazil created during the colonial era, one of which is replicated in the background of When Shall We 3 ?Donkor tends to gravitate towards images and figures presenting strong black women who led antislavery movements in America or challenged imperialism in Ghana and Jamaica."These women weren't overlooked, we know about them now because they have become folklore."Some Clarity of Vision shows at Gallery Momo, Johannesburg, until October 10.

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