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Africa's Women Artists, a Growing Voice
Arts, 11 Jun 2013


Claudine Pommier sat on a stool in the corner of a room filled with people admiring her photographs. An artist who shies away from the spotlight herself, Pommier instead sheds light on subjects that often do not have their voices heard publicly. In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, Pommier launched her photo exhibit Glimpses of Africa at The Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery in Vancouver. Focusing on the varying aspects of women’s traditional lives in Africa, the images are of the homes and roles of these mothers, labourers and caregivers in various African countries. Pommier often travels for other reasons, such as painting, and takes different photos throughout her travels. Glimpses is a culmination of different trips to Africa, compiled for this women-focused exhibit.
 
Pommier is not only a photographer, but also a sculptor, painter and filmmaker. Her film The Power of Art: Women’s Voices in Africa was screened in Vancouver a few days after the Glimpses exhibit opening. While the photography exhibit was a series of images of women’s everyday lives, The Power of Art is a project that highlights women in non-traditional African roles, such as the role of artist. It is women in these non-traditional roles that are changing the art scene in Africa, and bringing light to issues that deserve the public eye.

The premise for The Power of Art came from one of Pommier’s work-related visits to Africa. Although she realised that there must be female artists in Africa, Pommier often found herself alone in this field. In searching for these other artists, Pommier heard stories that spoke on the broader subject of women as artists in Africa, not just the struggles of individual artists. One such issue is that the concept of a “female artist” in Africa is not widely accepted, a reason being that the notion of “female artists” contradicts the traditional role of women in African society. While women have been making art in Africa for centuries, the label “artist” and the idea of “artist” as a profession, is new. The Power of Art highlights that female artists are slowly beginning to exist in a public role, whereas before it was only private. Through this public shift, the art being seen is showing a side of Africa many people overlook, or that the public is not generally able to see.

In parts of Africa, women have traditionally painted their houses as a form of communication to their surrounding community: the telling of a ceremony, an event. Now, art has moved beyond the traditional house painting into new areas: painting, sculpture, photography. Not only are the roles of women in art changing, but also the shift in the role of art itself. Art is now also serving as a form of expression of something more personal – the artist’s feelings and experiences. Often, the experiences are shared by the artist and their audience, thereby allowing support for shared grief and pain. Art is changing in its communications and serving as almost a form of therapy for shared experiences.

And the audiences reached through new art are also changing and growing. This is seen with some of the forms of art now evident in Africa. One such example is spray painting. Many of these artists create their work for those on the street to see and have access to, such as taxi drivers, or those living on the streets. While these artists never know how long their work will last, their work is pushed into the public space from the beginning. This may also be one of the rare forms of visual art that is not impeded by another challenge faced by other artists in many parts of Africa: the lack of galleries to show their work.

Overcoming such challenges that are faced by the wider African artist community, are an additional burden to the obstacles female artists already face. Another example of the broader issues faced is that art has been viewed as elitist, therefore a wide reach is difficult as many people have misgivings about art itself. Art is also often spoken of in English, which not all people speak, and this then leaves some out of the conversation.

A starting point for these women to succeed, may be having a common language of art for artists in Africa–not only a common language through class, but also through style and gender. Once the prejudices are overcome, then the art and artists will be free to put their work out there for the public to embrace and interpret themselves, without it being done for them.
 
Sarah Taylor
 
A full version of The Power of Art: Women’s Voices in Africa is available at Culture Unplugged
Claudine Pommier also made a documentary on the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. This can be found at Vimeo. © All images with this article - Claudine Pommier


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Sites for this article:
The Power of Art: Women’s Voices in Africa, full version
http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/1293/The-Power-of-Art--Women-s-Voices-in-Africa

Documentary on the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté by Claudine Pommier
http://vimeo.com/30514571

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