Again, questions and concerns on the visibility and representation of women in visual arts were raised at the maiden edition of the new discourse platform, Art Forum Africa (AFA) on the 28th November, 2015 in Lagos, Nigeria. The organization addressed the position of women and girls practising art in Africa through the question – Where Are the Women in Visual Arts?. Months before, Jemima Kirke, an artist and popular actress from the TV show Girls had asked a similar question – Where Are The Girls? – in a video for Tate investigating the role of women as makers in art.
As stated by AFA, “the issue of visibility and representation of women in the arts all over the world cannot be overstated until there is a visible balance across different regions and art forms”. A similar thought was echoed in a recent statement by Nigel Hurst, Chief Executive at Saatchi Gallery on the reason behind their first all female exhibition since Saatchi opened in 1985. The ongoing exhibition titled Champagne Life is an attempt by the renowned and respected gallery to redress gender disparity in contemporary art as they celebrate their 30th year anniversary. In the words of Hurst, “We’ve always supported the work of women artists over the years, many of those have gone on to have key roles in the contemporary art world, but I think there’s still a huge amount of work to be done”.
Before diving deep into the art world, one must know that in Africa the situation is more peculiar. Tradition seems to be a major factor in the choices that women can make. Expectations related to their gender already limit the options of the girl child long before the opportunity of choosing a career. This largely affects how high a woman can rise in any field of work, and in this case the arts and culture sector. As it is in other careers, only a few aggressive and persistent ones – who are given many negative labels – rises to huge success and recognition.
“Society has a way of correcting itself when we have this sort of conversation” – Azu Nwabogu
In Nigeria, it would be expected and even argued that things are different as the society is fast changing with a middle class that appears to know better. But no, the problem is still the same. Women and girls are still held back by traditional and social roles. It is still a highly patriarchal society. Parents as well as male partners are very  much in control of choices girls make. There are expectations with regards to marriage, having and raising children, and roles within relationships. Women are expected to do more than their male counterparts in the family system. This gradually kills the creativity of any female artist.

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