Celebrating women in visual arts

At the art gallery
Women have in the past few decades made resounding achievements all over the globe with Zimbabwe being one of the countries in which women have made significant strides in contributing towards social, economic, political and cultural development.

One of the topical issues now, as we celebrate the International Women’s Day and the Women’s month, is the pivotal role women play in almost all areas of life including the professional work space. Women are now being increasingly seen in business, civil service, and teaching and in the visual arts field.

Today I will talk about four pioneering artists who managed to push back boundaries or become agents for social change in their own right, rising to stardom against all odds and gender disparity in the visual arts scene. These artists have used their creativity in their quest for expressiveness, equality, justice and dignity for women through quality and diverse exhibitions and works of art.

The first of these women is Colleen Madamombe. Born in 1964 Madamombe was well known for her depictions of women and their traditional culture. She illustrated many themes of womanhood such as women at work, harvesting, carrying water or children and giving birth. Her preferred subject matter was deeply embedded in the traditional role of Zimbabwean women. Her short, stout female figures quickly became a symbol of womanhood in Zimbabwe and were swiftly adopted by the Zimbabwean International Film Festival as the trophy award for all winning women participants. She won the award “Best Female Artist of Zimbabwe” three times.

According to a 1994 publication titled “Life in Stone, Zimbabwean Sculpture” by Olivier Sultan, Madamombe asserts, “I am inspired by the activity of women and I work hard to show this in my sculpture. In recent pieces I have used natural areas of the stone with rough workings to emphasise this movement – the texture follows the rhythms of the body. This contrasts with the more finished areas of the face and hands.”

Madamombe worked predominantly in Spring stone a local type of hard serpentine rock used by many Zimbabwean sculptors, but she also used Opal stone a softer assortment of serpentine. An example of Madamombe’s sculpture is one that is part of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s Permanent Collection, Happy Woman.

A brawny female figure stands with her hand pressed on her waist. She wears an elated expression on her face suggesting a great deal of confidence and pride in herself. Many of Madamombe’s works were exhibited and sold outside in countries like Holland, Germany and USA. Her work added a new facet to the complexity of Zimbabwean stone sculpture through her commitment to a theme.

A tribute exhibition about her life and works was held at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in March 2010. Paying tribute, acknowledging and celebrating those who have contributed in significant way is one way to motivate the young generation to look up to them and be inspired to emulate the legacy left by these great luminaries. Sadly, she failed to patent her work during her lifetime and the ‘cuteness’ and coveted symbolism of her work resulted in her work becoming one of the most widely copied and reproduced forms of all stone sculpture in Zimbabwe.

She is regarded as one of the finest and most renowned female Second Generation sculptor in Zimbabwe and one of Africa’s most imperative and collected artists; Agnes Nyanhongo, has not only thrived in a medium that is physically demanding and is dominated by men but has managed to use her womanhood as the main source of inspiration. As a child she used to help her father, Claude Nyanhongo, in polishing some of his works which inexorably inspired her to start sculpting.

“My journey as an artist has been very remarkable. I started sculpting through my father who saw that I was interested in art and gave me basic training in sculpting. I spent a great deal of time helping him with polishing his work and it eventually inspired me to desire to become a practicing artist. Back then it was very unusual for women to sculpt as people thought of it as a male profession.

However I did not have a problem with becoming a female sculptor and I decided to enrolled at the BAT Workshop School to pursue art which has propelled me to doing international shows that have been received very well,” said Agnes Nyanhongo in an interview.

“The International Day of Women is a perfect opportunity which recognizes women for all the achievements they have done. It is very important that women are now being recognized for the various contributions they have made towards socio-economic and political development within nations because whatever we do as women we do it from our hearts,” she added.

Agnes Nyanhongo began exhibiting her sculptures in reputable galleries and contemporary art museums locally, regionally and internationally in the early 1990s. She has exhibited extensively in Germany, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, UK, USA, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy and Zimbabwe, which has earned her international recognition and critical acclaim within the world of contemporary stone sculpture. Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou are among the known collectors of her work.

Born in Bulawayo Semina Mpofu is another visual artist who has great respect within the sculpture movement in Zimbabwe and has won many awards for her diverse and creative works, usually in mixed medium stones. Zimbabwe and currently works as an arts Teacher at the International School in Harare. In the recently held NAMA (National Arts Merit Award) Mpofu scooped the Outstanding Mix Media award for her work titled Mhodzi Dzemusango in the Visual Arts category. In 2008 she won another award in the prestigious NAMA awards.

Mpofu worked for some years at Dominic Benhura’s Studios, where she developed her own unique style in the arts world. Her works are also featured in books such as; Zimbabwe Stone Sculpture ‘A Retrospective’ 1957-2004 compiled by Mrs Doreen Sibanda, the Executive Director at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and In Praise of Women Stone sculpture created or inspired by the Women of Zimbabwe 2004-2005 International Series.

A painter, Bulelwa Madekurozwa, noted the disparity between men and women in terms of representation as most of the artists in her school were men who painted portraits of stereotypically shy but proud African women tilling fields and toting babies. In a bid to challenge that stereotypical depiction, Madekurozwa began to paint portraits of strong black women with direct gazes.

In her own words Madekurozwa says ‘I paint people because figuration is a better vehicle for my ideas and is more accessible to the viewer, especially in Zimbabwe. I use my art to re-create the world on my own terms; taboos become exposed and the hidden is given prominence. In my work, women are more than just powerless beasts of burden and the male body becomes objectified for the delight of the voyeur. In this world there is no black and white but it is full of everything in between’.

Madekurozwa studied Fine Arts at Harare Polytechnic. She has exhibited widely in Zimbabwe and has participated in residencies in United States of America and United Kingdom. She also has won several awards, including a painting prize in 1997 at the 1st Biennale of Visual Arts by Women Artists in Zimbabwe.

The veritable triumph of women artists over the past thirty years locally, regionally and internationally assures them of a space in the history and making of a National Contemporary Heritage.

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