A Celebration of African Contemporary Women Artists

By Marirose Monaghan

“I Am…” is a powerful new exhibit at the Smithsonian National African Art Museum (NMAfA) that celebrates contemporary African women artists and is open until July 5, 2020. The exhibit takes its name from a 1970’s feminist anthem, “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy,  and features 27 different artists. Each work comes from the permanent collection of the NMAfA and features artists from South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, and Malawi.

The collection includes varying mediums of visual art including sculptures, photographs, and even a pressure cooker imprinted with a globe that alludes to the pressure women’s rights place on the world. The piece, created by Moroccan Artist Batoul S’Himi, marries the domestic and the global in an elegant and simple image.

Helga Kohl, a Polish photographer working in Namibia, shows structures of a ghost town being swallowed by sand. The town, Kolmanskop, used to be a thriving diamond industry, but is being taken back by its own earth as buildings sit abandoned. The photo depicts cool colors and the buildup of sand makes it eerie. Kohl has visited Kolmanskop in the past to create other works, as Kolmanskop is the inspiration not only for this photo but many of Kohl’s other works.

Another medium, smoke on paper, depicts a good shepherd who looks burdened by his task or may not be so good after all. The artist, Diane Victor of South Africa, wanted to inspire the same feeling of distrust that modern businessmen inspired in her country.

Other scenes portray more simple versions of the life of the artist. Billie Zangewa, an artist born in Malawi and working in South Africa, made Constant Gardener, a scene made of thread and dupion silk. Constant Gardener shows a woman wearing a yellow dress and planting in a field. Zangewa wanted to sew the scene of when she would plant produce for her newborn son after he was born. 

Toyin Odutola of Nigeria created a piece in the collection made with pen on paper, testing the binaries of the race and color spectrum as well as the gender spectrum. The photo portrays the subject looking isolated from their surroundings, almost as if the person depicted is giving the viewer the cold shoulder.

In 2018, the American Women’s History Initiative was launched by the Smithsonian Institution. The initiative was launched to expand knowledge of women’s issues and history. The Smithsonian plans to use a digital-first mission and focus. The NMAfA is hosting a second exhibit surrounding women’s art and African issues entitled “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women.” This exhibit will continue until Feb. 2, 2020.

The NMAfA is a short walk from the Smithsonian metro stop and the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop. Visitors are encouraged to engage with the exhibit on social media by using @IAMnmafa and #IAMnmafa. To learn more about the exhibit, visit Africa.si.edu.

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