sixteen African artists transform the intimate

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«Mombathiseni», by Buhlebezwe Siwani (installation, 2020).

Create from the intimate, daily life, the family circle, and thus talk about the body, transmission, emancipation. This is what the sixteen artists, all African women, offer from the exhibition “The Power of my Hands”, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris as part of the Africa2020 season.

The route offers the visitor a multiplicity of looks and artistic approaches, between painting, photography, pottery or performance. The dreamlike paintings of the Zimbabwean Portia Zvavahera thus rub shoulders with the kimono Holy Moutain of the Kenyan Grace Ndiritu and the embroidered plastic bags of the series the burden by Angolan Ana Silva.

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« The Power of my Hands » est par essence “A feminist gesture”, wrote Julie Crenn, art critic, in an unpublished essay for the exhibition catalog. Women artists are still under-represented in museums or galleries, and even more so when they come from the African continent.

The exhibition intends to highlight these African designers, from Portuguese and English speaking countries, in order to lift a corner of the veil on a contemporary scene little known in France. The other objective, according to Odile Burluraux, co-curator of the exhibition, is to “To reach a wider public, who do not usually come to the museum, a public perhaps younger, more diverse”.

The condition of women on the continent

The artists in the spotlight at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris each approach the condition of women on the continent in their own way. Their works, reflections of their cultural identity and their personal history, are also invested with a deeply political dimension.

“My artistic practice is set against the backdrop of the unresolved traumas of racial slavery, colonialism and apartheid, as well as the socially entrenched structures of patriarchy and rape culture.”, writes for example the South African Gabrielle Goliath in the catalog.

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His creation, entitled Roulette, is at first glance difficult to define: on the ground, a simple doormat is decorated with an inscription warning of a danger to the hearing. A helmet normally hangs from the ceiling – because of the pandemic it has been replaced by a sound shower. Every three hours, the detonation of a gun tears the silence of the room: an explosion to the rhythm of feminicides in South Africa.

Domestic activities, often associated with boredom and the confinement of women to their homes, are the inspiration for many artists. The slowness inherent in embroidery, sewing and painting nourishes their thinking.

Reclaiming forbidden subjects

La Sud-Africaine Buhlebezwe Siwani, you have sangoma (traditional healer), even describes the repetitive realization of the woolen twists of Dress him, the first work in the exhibition, as a meditative experience. Almost an affront to the contemporary world, which always pushes for more productivity.

Some artists are reappropriating the arts and forbidden subjects. Stacey Gillian Abe thus sculpts vulvae in clay, while it is forbidden to represent private parts in her Lugbara culture, present in Western Uganda.

Same problem for the Mozambican Reinata Sadimba. Figurative art, like the subject of pregnancy, is taboo for Makondé women, the Bantu-speaking population of southern Africa from which she comes. The ceramicist and sculptor, who disguised herself as a man for part of her career, nevertheless shapes anthropomorphic creatures, some of which are represented pregnant or in the process of giving birth.

No matter the medium, these artists “Take charge of their environment”, says Odile Burluraux. They take a committed look at the society around them, perhaps contributing, through their work and their projects, to transform it.

“The Power of my Hands”, by Keyezua (synthetic hair braids, 2015).

This is the meaning of the title of the exhibition “The Power of my Hands” which is also that of a work by the Angolan artist Keyezua. This composition of synthetic hair braids is a tribute to the history of art and the famous Black square on white background (1915) by Kasimir Malevich. It also evokes the concept of time and intergenerational transmission, African mothers being able to spend hours braiding their daughters’ hair.

“The Power of my Hands” finally tells about the solidarity and sorority that binds African women, as when they comb their hair, in family or in salons.

« The Power of my Hands »At the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, until August 22.