An ongoing group exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington D. C. offers multiple perspectives on African womanhood. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

“Liberal Women Protest March” (parts I and II), the works are titled. They proclaim the strength and resilience of the African womanhood. Done by the iconic female artist Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye, they are allusions to the collective power of African women. The designation “African women”, in this context, refers not just to those living on the continent, but also extends to those who, currently or historically, are part of the diaspora.

Former U. S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Robin Renée Sanders, in whose collection the works had been, recently gifted them to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington D. C. Not only have they now found a permanent home in the museum’s vast collection, they are also among the two works by Davies-Okundaye featured at the opening of its newest exhibition, titled I Am… Contemporary Women from Africa.

This ongoing group exhibition, featuring works by 27 of Africa’s leading modern and contemporary female artists, opened at the museum since Thursday, June 20. For Sanders, the exhibition which continues until Sunday, July 5, 2020, is one way of getting the works seen, by not just by more Americans but also by others on the international stage.

Fate had crossed her path with Davies-Okundaye’s more than 15 years ago long before she became her country’s ambassador to Nigeria. A fan of Nigerian traditional textiles, which she is known to wear, the brief encounter with the effervescent Nigerian woman, she fondly calls “Mama Nike”, had left an indelible impression in her consciousness. Davies-Okundaye had even told her that she “would return someday to Nigeria as the U. S. Ambassador”, a prophesy that eventually came to pass.
The two women, from different backgrounds, bonded so well that their close association extended to their respective families. Indeed, Davies-Okundaye, her husband, Reuben, and their daughters had since remained in close communication with the Sanders. And the latter, during a tour of Nigeria several years back, visited her landmark cultural centres in the Lekki area of Lagos and the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.

“What I love about Mama Nike,” Sanders says, “is that she herself is the living embodiment of art and culture. When you see her or hear her speak, you feel it… you feel just how alive art is and how much it is a part of you. When I saw the paintings, Liberal Women Protest March I & II; II, the pieces just spoke to me on so many levels. But, most importantly to me, they were so Nike!”

Back to the ongoing exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. It derives its title from Helen Reddy’s inspirational 1971 pop music hit, “I Am Woman”, and is part of the museum’s current women’s initiative to extend the visibility of female artists, which besides the exhibition has also yielded a publication, titled “Good as Gold”.

An evaluation, done seven years back, revealed that only 11 % of the named artists represented in the collections had been women. Dissatisfied with this discovery, the museum’s curator Karen Milbourne disclosed that there is an ongoing effort to redress this imbalance and this effort has already doubled the rate of female artists’ representation to 22 %.
At the exhibition’s press preview, held on Tuesday, June 18, Nike Davies-Okundaye was one of the three artists present. The other two were Patience Torlowei from Nigeria and the South African Billie Zangewa.

But, Davies-Okundaye and Torlowei are not the only Nigerians among the exhibition’s 27 featured artists. There are also names like the U. K.-based Sokari Douglas-Camp, U.S.-based Njideka Akunyili-Crosby, the Nigerian-born American Toyin Ojih Odutola, the U.S.-based Adejoke Tugbiyele and the late iconic Nigerian ceramicist Ladi Kwali. Also included in the exhibition are the works of the Austrian-born Susanne Wenger (a. k. a. Adunni Olorisha), who spent most of her artistic life in the south-western Nigerian town of Osogbo.

Besides the overwhelming presence of Nigerians and Nigerian-based names, the exhibition also featured an equally impressive number of South Africans besides Billie Zangewa. They are Diane Victor, the English-born Sue Williamson, who lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa, Penny Siopis, Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi, Frances Goodman, Senzeni Marasela, Zanelle Muholi and Nompumelelo Ngoma.

The others are Kenya’s Wnagechi Mutu, Ingrid Mwangi and Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo, Ethiopia’s Aida Muluneh and Etiyé Dimma Poulsen, Morocco’s Batoul S’Himi, Mozambique’s Bertina Lopes, Polish-born Helga Kohl who lives and works in Namibia, Italian-born Maïmouna Guerresi who lives and works in Dakar, Senegal and Egypt’s Ghada Amer.

Curiously, most of the artists representing Nigeria are based in the West. Besides Ladi Kwali and Susanne Wenger, who are deceased, Davies-Okundaye seems to be the only home-based Nigerian artist featured at the exhibition. The exhibition, she says, is “one of the greatest” she has ever participated in. “I, Nike Okundaye will always be grateful to the people who made this show happen,” she gushes.

This is an exhibition, she believes, that has brought her good luck, after recently bagging an honorary doctorate degree from the Osun State University in Osogbo.

Her 1995 acrylic diptych painting depicts a group of women gathered at a nonviolent demonstration on a canvas expressive patterned with motifs, which are reminiscent of her textile designs.

As for Torwolei, she converts the skirt of a sleeveless gown to a canvas, regaling the viewers with images alluding to man’s violence against his natural environment. The dress, whose dazzling bodice is reminiscent of gold, is the first haute couture piece in the museum’s collection. Titled “Esther”, after her late mum, she says it is “much more than a dress. She is a force.” It has previously been featured in a fashion show held at the museum in 2014. The fashion designer was born in the south-eastern Nigerian city of Enugu, though to Ijaw parents. Partly educated at the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, she has been based in Belgium since 1989.

Also expressing herself in fabric is Billie Zangewa with her self-portrait in dupion silk, titled “Constant Gardener”. In the work, scenes of her life are stitched to represent a woman, who according to her, “does not look for approval outside of herself.” The work itself evokes the period after her son was born when she would rise at night to plant the fresh produce that would later nourish him. The Malawian-born artist, who lives in South Africa, has always been fascinated by fashion since her childhood. Before finally settling down to the visual arts, she had produced purses and handbags and even worked in fashion and advertising industry.

Then, there is Sokari Douglas-Camp, whose brightly-coloured mixed-media work titled “Sketch for Church Ede”, depicts a visually-cluttered scene of three women wrapped in stiff lace at a funeral. But, Njideka Akunyili-Crosby’s “Wedding Souvenirs” offers a less cluttered collage with acrylic part of which evokes the popular Ankara textile fabrics. A large-size portrait of a woman clad in a simple African attire overlooks two gift items with a Sphinx-like sang-froid.
Of course, the exhibition offers much more than works produced with or inspired by fabrics. The Namibia-based Helga Kohl offers a haunting spectral view of surrounding sands reclaiming a bedroom in a derelict diamond mine in the Namibian town of Kolmansko.

Also engaging is the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s life-sized “Tree Woman”, which is contrived with earth, pulp stone and tree branches. Another interesting life-sized work is the Nigerian Adejoke Tugbiyele’s 2015 sculpture, titled “Past/Future”, which shows a bent figure made from brooms, strainers and wire.

Rather incendiary is South Africa’s Senzeni Marasela’s red thread on linen, titled “Covering Sarah” which revisits the outrageous history of Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century Khoi woman derisively nicknamed “Hottentot Venus” because of her large buttocks and displayed like a curiosity in Europe. Still dredging up history, Sue Williamson memorialises a little-known multiracial neighborhood demolished by South Africa’s apartheid government in her 1993, titled “The Last Summer Revisited”.

Among the hard-to-ignore works at the exhibition are the Moroccan Batoul S’Himi’s 2011 untitled work from “World Under Pressure” series, the South African Nompumelelo near abstract monoprint, “Take Care of Me”, the Nigerian-born Toyin Ojih Odutola’s densely drawn ballpoint pen profile Untitled (D.O. Back Study), the South African Diane Victor’s candle smoke representational painting, titled “Good Shepherd”, the South African Frances Goodman evocations of the amorous traditions of the car back set in “Skin on Skin”, the South African Zanele Muholi photographic efforts at making black lesbians more visible and Penny Siopis reprise in a video, titled “Communion”, of the story of a nun murdered by a crowd in the aftermath of an anti-apartheid protest.

Perhaps, the exhibition’s greatest asset is the fact that it avoids the pitfalls of the single story of womanhood. Rather, straddling generational divides, explores the multiplicity of the contributions of women in the society.