“Society has a way of correcting itself when we have this sort of conversation” – Azu Nwabogu
The bad state of education also does not contribute to confidence building for young women. Artist and architect, Peju Alatise, a speaker at the forum pointed at rarely discussed issues in the educational system in Nigeria. Young girls face sexual harassment and abuse at some point in school, either from a teacher, lecturer or from a fellow student. This in turn influences their choice of subjects and special area of focus to avoid courses that are male dominated, rather than follow their heart. The problem gets worse after graduation. Existing traditional roles makes it difficult to grow a professional career as an artist. You are expected to conform. “There is even more support (including financial encouragement) for women who go into crafts rather than core art”, says Ifeoma Fafunwa, Filmmaker and Director of popular stage production HEAR WORD! – Naija woman talk true.
From another point made, the problem extends beyond family, friends and partners of female artists to stigmatization by their male peers. They have accused female artists of choosing subjects and media that are connected to their femininity. Some responds to discussions like this with statements suggesting women artists lack boldness in expression and the courage to experiment.
With reference to boldness and subjects, Ugoma Adegoke another speaker at the forum, creative director of The Life House advises “women artists should rise to push harder to be more visible knowing there will always be these biases of gender and race in the art world”. She considers the depth of subjects by artists in Nigeria or Africa as important areas to start discussing as there is a gradual shift that will bring some balance to gender representation soon. Thankfully, this appears true.
On the other hand, Azu Nwabogu of African Artists’ Foundation and director of LagosPhoto, insists the society need these conversations to drive changes and prepare young female artists for the challenges ahead. “Society has a way of correcting itself when we have this sort of conversation.” This point of view might be the reason Doreen Remen of Art Production Fund also answered Artnet’s question on art world biases with “… when it comes to the most recognizable artists, the majority of the names are still overwhelmingly male. If we do not raise awareness about sexism’s prevalence in our industry, we only perpetuate the issue.”
Back to the forum, Alatise recalls the story of a foremost female artist in Nigeria, Mrs Nike Okundaye Davies who was stoned several times in public for daring to be an artist. Today, at 64, she is a celebrated powerful woman in the art world. Several women artists are still enduring similar abuse. If not physical, then it is the mental torture of being an artist in a society that wants you to conform. Why should an artist ‘born to stand out’ and go beyond boundaries be made to conform? How can she reconcile these conflicts? How come women artists from Africa are doing better in Euro-American societies? Mama Nike, as she is called, is one big shining example out of the few who eventually make it to the top here.
Nonetheless, despite all the above challenges, including lack of interest and support by most governments in Africa, Africa is still not a totally hopeless place to be a female artist. Conditions vary from one country to another, and some artists do well despite the challenges. Peju Alatise for instance was the lead female artist in sales at the first Contemporary African art auction at Bonhams in October 2015. There are also more artists like, Ndidi Dike, Joana Choumali, Mary Sibande and so on who live and work on the continent, and are gaining global attention.
Amongst possible solutions provided, which includes proper documentation of female artists, it was agreed that extra support and mentorship structures should be created to help young females who come into the art world. One thing that was common to all the women artists present was lack of direct mentorship by older generation of women artists.
Till the end of December 2015, the forum enjoyed unusual reports in newspapers, like Daily Telegraph, Vanguard News (print and online) and Guardian News Nigeria amongst others. This was unusual because most of the reports published were under non-arts-and-culture sections of the newspapers, to drive home the importance of the question discussed. It was also recently broadcast on Ebony Life TV on DSTV cable channel.
The organizers of Art Forum Africa are Bukola Oye and Wana Udobang. The forum was supported by The Kingdom of the Netherlands Embassy, Ford Foundation, Ajeast Group, Zebra Living, and Bella Naija. Look out for the publication The Art of Nigerian Women by Chukwuemeka Bosah in the second quarter of 2016.
Bukola Oye, Art Writer/Founder, The Sole Adventurer