By Elizabeth Nganga
At the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), held 25th June - 4th July 2004, there was one corner that was practically sizzling with feminine energy. The ZIFF Women’s Panorama, through its array of activities - film screenings of movies on women, by women, or for women; workshops and stage performances; aimed to increase awareness of gender equity and associated issues, giving agency to women as doers rather than as victims or objects.
One of the strongest deliveries of these messages was through an art exhibition titled ‘Look into my Soul’, a commentary on sisterhood compiled with input from women artists from all over the world. ZIFF had made a call for artistic works that portrayed spiritualism, feminism and culture, through advertisements on the event website, local and national newspapers and on the radio.
It is an approach that seems almost chancy: Are women all over the world that closely connected? Do the geographical distances, different political and social systems, politics, religious beliefs and even colour, disimilarise women’s view of specific issues?
And more importantly can art transgress these borders?
Informed by different cultures and with varied levels of inhibitions, would some works unwittingly offend the senses of some people? How diverse would the work from a woman in Ireland be from that of one in Kenya? Or would the artistic expression of woman in a Muslim city in Africa, where women take a back seat, gel with that of one from America where issues to do with gender are in the foreground?
The response for the exhibition was phenomenal; women from as far as America and as close as Stone Town (in Zanzibar) submitted works which introduced both contemporary and traditional aspects of culture. All entries provided an opportunity for women to learn about each other on local, regional and international levels. But some sensitivities had to be taken into account in the final selection.
The onus of Aida Ayers, an arts activist, artist and art educator, to sieve through the entries and eliminate those that would obviously come into conflict with Muslim culture predominant in Zanzibar.
Even so, Aida, currently working with Zanzibari women, still retained a variety wide enough to put together an exhibition diverse enough to make visitors confront their assumptions, and get an informed and transformed vision on issues affecting women world over.
Among the selected works was that of Elizabeth Kiehner, a producer for a New York based graphic company. Her grandmother, Rosemarie - her family’s matriarch, largely inspires Elizabeth’s work. Whenever Elizabeth visits her hometown - a small town in rural Pennsylvania - Rosemarie offers her bedroom to her. And it is while lying on her grandmother’s 50-year-old bed that Elizabeth takes in all the subtle details of this lady, who she admires and respects.
Indeed, one of the works she chose to convey her idea of sisterhood is a photo titled ‘My Grandmother’s House’. The amazing thing is that this typically ‘western’ house, depicted through a side table, pinks, lacy furnishings and ornamental lamp, could really be anyone’s grandmother’s house.
Not so much from a décor point of view, but because it is so reminiscent of the comfort of a grandmother’s house: The ageless beauty and the fine touch. Any woman anywhere in the world will identify with that special feeling of grandmother’s house - the almost palpable warmth.
No wonder then, that in Elizabeth’s own words: "Sisterhood is an unspeakable and transcendental bond between women that affects the collective unconsciousness of females around the world."
Elizabeth says she never touches anything she photographs. The objects lie wherever they were last placed and exist as an echo of whatever human acts left them there. "I want people to feel the echo that I feel when I notice these things found together."
Her photo titled ‘The Hanger’ hanging on a door in her grandmother’s house, taken against the dawn light, shines with warmth that this house, and this woman must have for the photographer. Elizabeth Kiehner, she comments: Communication and expression lie at the core of human existence and it empowers women to raise their voices and whisper or scream a song that can travel to others and create a shared experience
Being a female artist is liberating and it enables women to actualise their inherent motives.
A thought that seemed, on first glance to have been taken a notch too high by Lynda Cookson of Ireland. While Elizabeth’s photography immediately endures you, Lynda’s painting titled ‘Lion Fury’ at first make you take a step back, as does the words that go with it: ‘Yeeha!, Lynda’s commentary starts,
"There is nothing stronger that the bond amongst women.
There is nothing stronger that the nurturing power of a woman!
And there is nothing stronger than the sense of survival in women!
We bring the balance and care to the harshness of life and survival in women!
We bring balance and care to the harshness of life and survival and we know it.
Right up to that point you feel as if you are dealing with a radical feminist. But the rest of the text is a lot gentler:
And we use it!
And we smile about it together!
In true complement, the pastel colours in the background subdue the fire we see being breathed by the lion in her painting. Even more delightful is Lynda’s strong acknowledgement in the role of men in women’s lives:
"Without man I cannot be woman.
Without male I cannot be female
I rejoice in my womanhood!"
Lynda was born in Durban (South Africa) in 1954 and travelled widely throughout Southern Africa. 1974 saw her camping around Britain and Europe. Her adult life has taken her to live in many different places including Durban, Pietermaritzburg and the Drakesburg and finally Oughterard at the Gateway of Connemara in the West of Ireland.
The warm strong colours of Africa still influence Lynda’s work and her move to Ireland has made her aware of colour even more and to look at it with a deeper appreciation. She says: Like every other avenue in life as a woman artist, I must shout louder, work harder. I must achieve better and then I am acceptable. And I must not slip backwards.
Kenyan photographer Rasnah Warah through pictures taken in Afghanistan depicted the effect of war on women. One of her photographs shows a woman holding her child walking towards a crumbling war. Rasnah says she took this particular shot because it was just a beautiful picture.
But for me and other people who saw it, its poignant with feelings and moments of desperation that many women all over the world must have had at one point in their lives. That one or two seconds when everything seems to practically falling apart, leaving you no escape root, but when you must be at your strongest because you have responsibilities and people depending on you.
Rasnah’s other picture is a close-up of young, bubbly Afghanistan women, this time walking away from the rumble. Their fresh looking faces, their big smiles ooze with hope and excitement.
It is the survival instinct in women that one gets from this picture. Of her work Rasnah says: ‘I have found that a woman with a camera is far less threatening to people than a man with a camera. It is a very empowering tool, both for the photographer and the subject, as both are transformed by the experience.’
Mwikali Matu was another Kenyan exhibitor. A Fine Arts graduate from Nairobi University, Mwikali shares the disillusionment of many Kenyan artists: the inability to make a living as an artist per se. Currently, she is running what she considers a less-than-artistic venture - creating wedding cards for a niche market.
Her clientele are people looking for something outrageous, or odd, but in the end Mwikali has to produce what ‘they’ wants watering down her creativity.
With her financial base firm in her small but flourishing business, Mwikali has only recently returned to her true love - creative arts. As an artist or a designer, Mwikali works with paper and beads.
The paper made for her by community groups in Kenya. Under her supervision pulp made from waste paper is mixed with water hyacinth. The natural colours are whitish, brown and so on, but with dye several other colours can be obtained. She designs the beads personally and gets Maasai women to make them to specification.
In her own words, her work portrays the images of beauty that she believes a woman should be: ‘Beautiful and delicate looking like glass yet very strong.’
She adds: "You will find women balancing two jobs, a husband, children…upcountry a woman will even have wood and water on their backs. As women, appearance is very important. Despite our different cultures and different ways, beauty will always be a unifying symbol for women. "
Mwikali’s work certainly reflects this - there is a neatness around it: the pert beadwork and clear coordination of colours and shapes. But on closer inspection, her work could reflect her brave survival. Of slight build, single, young, and a woman, she has all the odds stacked high against her to make a business work in a tough economic climate. But she is determined and she is doing it. It is a determination and the triumph shared by women all over the world.
Lenny Moeskops who had created hats inspired by West African culture brought out a different facet of women. The hats were frivolous and care free, almost silly, and in a way, this is characteristic of women: whimsical, fun and cheery.
Ute Monch from Germany got to the ‘root’ of the matter: She works with mangrove roots to create images of birds, and her ability to turn root into something colourful adeptness of women all over the world.
She says: "Sisterhood is about helping each other, sharing the good and the bad, and going through it all. "
It was fitting that Sharifa Mohamed of Stone Town showed ‘Women of the World’, depicted through a collage of life-like dolls adorned according to different cultures; from bui bui to modern attire. Sharifa is young and one of a new generation of Zanzibari muslim women trying to find a place in a setting that hardly recognises women. It is through arts that she has found the voice so often denied her by the Islamic Sharia.
Her work, in many ways, tied in all aspects of the sisterhood theme: It was a true reflection of women that really did not need any words to express it.
All the women who exhibited in ‘Look into My Soul’ had not met. But their pieces still gelled to form a fitting interpretation of sisterhood. Their works, informed by different cultures and experiences, exemplified women all over the world and the various rites passage of womenhood. It was a celebration of womanhood and its borderless bond.
Posted By: Allan Kapten
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