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Barefoot in the kitchen or boss in the boardroom - What is art saying about SA women?

29 September 2016 - 17:43 By Roxanne Henderson
SILENT STANDOFF: Performers from the art collective iQhiya protest against the absence of female representation in public life
SILENT STANDOFF: Performers from the art collective iQhiya protest against the absence of female representation in public life
Image: SEAN O'TOOLE

Babies on the back and black women who do not smile are some of the stereotypes the local art market is flooded with‚ but experts say many contemporary artists are challenging this.

Art collector and University of the Witwatersrand dean of students Dr Puleng LenkaBula said in an interview earlier this year: "I love beautiful art but I don’t like paintings of black women who are not smiling".

"If you go to any museum the faces of black women that are projected by artists‚ South Africa artists in particular‚ often have sad black women and yet we laugh a lot.

"We laugh in difficult times‚ we laugh when we have good ideas that change academic systems. I try to make sure that the art that I procure speaks truth to the experiences of happiness that I see in black women.

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"I don’t like images of black women with babies on their backs because they recreate stereotypical images that apartheid created as stereotypes of black women. Even with my art I am very attentive of its meaning – what it is encoding and decoding."

In South Africa the art LenkaBula speaks of can easily be found on the walls of galleries and on pavements‚ but there is a reimagining that is taking hold of the art scene.

Director at the New Church Museum in Cape Town Kirsty Cockerill says: "There is a certain market that is very comfortable with that stereotype. They have average visual literacy and are comfortable with that kind of image‚ but it is not the only art being produced.

"Over the last few years‚ we have seen a number of young black female artists taking control of their subjectivity‚ and make artworks that represent a rightfully empowered female capacity‚ specific to their experience‚ and this is long overdue."

Art curator Asanda Madosi‚ who has worked with Ayanda Mabulu‚ the artist known for his shocking portrayals of president Jacob Zuma's private parts‚ agrees.

According to Madosi‚ more empowered women will be represented in art if more women artists are given opportunities.

"I think the more important question that needs to be asked is who is actually painting these women. In most cases‚ from high art to the art that you find in the streets‚ the perspective that the woman is painted from is from a patriarchal view. It's from a male point of view.

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"So even the aesthetic and symbolism of it… is a portrayal of women in the traditional sense. They are never put in a position of power.

"Female artists should be given an equal platform and opportunity to express their experiences. When a female artist puts something on canvas it's going to be holistically different from the perceptions and experiences men are putting on canvas.

"The opportunity needs to be given to female artists to be able to voice themselves without any pressure."

Artists portraying women in positions of power include Nandipha Mntambo‚ Tony Gum‚ Zanele Muholi‚ Ayanda Mabulu and the iQhiya Collective‚ Madosi says.

"If you take for instance what Nandipha is doing with her sculpture‚ where women are put in positions of power. They're not carrying anything. They're not wearing doeks. They are women that are strong. They want to challenge and take on the world."

Cockerill's pick of artists challenging stereotypical representations of women are Tracey Rose‚ Bridget Baker‚ Conrad Botes‚ Penny Siopsis‚ Khanyisile Mbongwa and Lebohang Kganye.

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