Marginalisation of women artists a colonial hangover

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By Dr Tony Monda

NEW signatures on Zimbabwe’s cultural landscape are those of women photographers and videographers.
Contemporary Zimbabwean women artists are producing a pertinent body of art photography and film that examines different facets of our society.
Recognising that female artists have been over-looked by major art galleries, I set out to conduct a mini-survey to examine what Zimbabwe would look like through the lens of women.
It yielded awe-inspiring results.
While Zimbabwean women artists have tackled socio-cultural issues, including gender discrimination, sexuality, the politics of representation and the patriarchy that dominates the art world, they have been silent on society’s exclusion of women in the arts.
Women’s contemporary critical interpretations of life seen through their lenses go beyond conventional patterns of cognitive experience.
As artists, they bring new points of views and different systems of artistic thought to their work; often breaking clichéd male pictorial conventions of photography and perceptions of art.
Collectively they have re-positioned themselves by creating thought-provoking work for viewers to take notice and contemplate their imagery and aesthetic statements.
In Africa, as in most parts of the colonially dispossessed world, the camera arrived as part of colonial investigative paraphernalia.
Photography was the preserve of the colonial settlers with access to cameras for recording their journeys through unchartered terrain and what they described as the ‘Dark Continent’.
Photographs of Nehanda and Kaguvi, moments before they were callously hanged, form some of the earliest and most poignant photographic archival records of the early uprising that brought about the birth of Zimbabwe in 1980.
From the spontaneous instant it is captured, photography certifies experience and legitimises it, that today even the rituals of birth, marriage and death find completion in the photograph.
The photograph outlives the event photographed.
The language of photography with its ability to record, to mirror and to comment on history makes it a powerful tool for exploring new identities and ideas in society.
Today’s women photographers present another reality, confirmed through the camera’s eye and the photographer’s imagination and technical skills.
The anonymity and lack of visibility of women artists, particularly photographers and filmmakers in Zimbabwe, is disconcerting.
In this day and age, women should no longer be seen as the subservient and neglected gender, or as appendages to the arts posing as painters’ models or as objects for anatomical studies.
Zimbabwe women artists offer alternative readings to existing codes of photographic representations.
However, their voices and visions have been demeaned by the male-dominated culture of art curators who always consider male artists first.
A glaring example is Venice Biennale’s (2015) Zimbabwean selection of artists which was particularly bigoted, sexist, insensitive and unfair to women artists.
It featured a wholly partisan group of three males, all of whom are two-dimensional artists, representing Zimbabwe from one particularly stereo-typical gaze – even their subject matter was typically male.
In the three successive Zimbabwe representations at the Venice Biennales, (2011-2015), only three females have been selected out of 12 artists.
These statistics are appalling in this day and age.
Zimbabwe’s trailblazing women artists are not receiving recognition for their talents, production and years of contribution to the arts.
Additionally, they are not being economically empowered to deliver their ideas independently.
The local gallery community, cultural funding agencies, patrons, media and general public, need to redress their segregational attitude and non-written discriminatory policies towards women in the arts.
The continued marginalisation of indigenous women artists in Zimbabwe is a neo-colonialist hangover.
Zimbabwe’s male art curators are perpetuating the same attitudes (where women were not permitted anywhere), repeating the condescension of their colonial masters.
The guerilla warfare in which Zimbabwean women took part during the liberation struggle (1965-1980), makes it imperative for us not to ignore their contribution to the ultimate cultural liberation of the country.
Often without worthy acknowledgment and visibility, women play critical roles in portraying our society.
They formulate and instill morals, ethics and culture in our children who become the cultural conscience of society.
Women convey language in our mother-tongue and hand down creeds and customs as well as aesthetic notions that influence individuals in ways that can eventually gain global recognition,
Although unacknowledged, in the last two decades Zimbabwe women photographers and film makers have excelled beyond imagination in the cultural fields.
These include, but are not limited to, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Alice Tavaya, Sekai Machache, Rudo Nyangulu, Davina Joggee, Patience Tawengwa, Farai Wallace, Nyaradzo Dhliwayo, Annie Mpalume, Nancy Mteki, Sabina Sheldon, Valarie Shamu and Fungai Machirori
With limited support, patronage or aid from cultural funding organisations or NGOs, they struggle within the cultural industries.
Often relegated to the fringes of the narrow-minded arts establishment; even ignored by their own – the women gallerists and female cultural funding agents, who prefer to give funding and exhibition space to male artists.
Could it be that there is assumed gender discrimination in the arts emanating from entrenched chauvinistic male curators and administrators in Zimbabwe?
Although Zimbabwean women photographers’ artwork is by-and-large undervalued, curatorially and financially, their work is thematically and aesthetically superior.
Their use of imaginative investigation outclasses the clichéd photographic reportage preferred by men.
The women provide a historically and aesthetically relevant alternative content in the arts, producing undeniably powerful images.
Zimbabwean women artists from different ethnicities, social footing and histories offer amazing artworks that make-up Zimbabwe’s cultural body of visual spectacle and discourse.
They are collectively engaged in the visual historical process of contemporary art-making without precedence and are engaging critically with photographic traditions, theoretical implications and new-age practices.
It is necessary to contextualise and recognise the work of women artists in the history of Zimbabwean art.
It is time the nation affords them their prime space as professional cultural contributors to the arts and cultural history of Zimbabwe.
Being female should not be perceived as a liability, but a virtue to be celebrated.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy, a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, musician, art critic, practising artist and Corporate Image Consultant. He is also a specialist Art Consultant, Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.
E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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