In many African countries, where career paths for women can still be limited to practical fields like nursing and teaching, the decision to attempt a career in art is seen as unrealistic. Female artists face enormous cultural and financial resistance. But a Johannesburg residency and an international art fair opening in Brooklyn next week aim to help some young women get a toehold on the ladder.
Stacey Gillian Abe’s installation at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which runs May 4 through 6 at Pioneer Works, the cultural center in the borough’s Red Hook neighborhood, would be provocative in any context, but given the patriarchal traditions of her native Uganda, its subject matter is all the more challenging: the objectification of women, and the sexual satisfactions of women. It consists of a profusion of vaginas, molded out of clay and painted red, exaggeratedly open and arranged randomly on the floor. An olufe — a wooden pole in Lugbara, her spoken language — used to mix millet, stands upright, set not in a traditional mortar but in a toilet.
The title, “Enya Sa, ” referring to millet bread, a dietary staple, leaves little doubt that she’s challenging assumptions. “The whole idea is looking at satisfaction: food and sex,” Ms. Abe, 27, said in a Skype conversation from Johannesburg earlier this month. “At what point is it right to ask for something? It’s taboo in Uganda for women to talk about sex.”
Alka Dass, a 25-year-old artist from Durban, South Africa, will take on related themes at the fair, with subtler imagery. Her piece, “Little Lolitas,” is an arrangement of film reels partly covered by knitted jerseys. The top and bottom of the reels are bare, like torsos with shoulders and midriffs exposed. It nods to the way that young girls — the nymphets in the Vladimir Nabokov work that inspired Ms. Dass’s title — are treated as passive objects of male desire. The theme is recurrent in Ms. Dass’s feminist work, rooted in South Africa’s Indian community.
“Women in my community are completely covered except in the midriff,” she said. “The sari exposes that, so it becomes the most sexualized part of the body.”
The determination of these women to become artists was considered nearly subversive by their families. Ms. Abe endured a torrent of recrimination from family members who thought she was throwing her life away. Ms. Dass’s family disowned her.
“They’re dealing with issues that take a lot of courage to address in Africa,” says Touria El Glaoui, who was a wealth management consultant before she established the 1-54 in 2013 in London, adding the New York edition in 2015. “They’re life and death issues, and their work is very sensitive and speaks to insecurities, fears, expectations, and being in the world as a woman — which we often think about as women but don’t express well.”
Neither woman could expect a warm welcome in the art world they aspired to join. According to a 2010 research report by the National Arts Council of South Africa, an agency of the country’s Department of Arts & Culture, 88 percent of artists in South Africa who support themselves from their work are male, 12 percent female, and of that group only 3 percent are women of color. (In the eight years since that report, the gender imbalance has not changed much in the South African art scene, and there’s little data about other African countries.)
After visiting South Africa last year, Ms. El Glaoui, the daughter of the Moroccan painter Hassan El Glaoui, was especially impressed by The Project Space, a nonprofit whose Young Female Residency Award had thrown Ms. Dass and Ms. Abe a lifeline, providing accommodation, studio space, stipends for materials and for travel, including a roundtrip ticket to France for a period of residency there. Founded in 2016, it awards one South African and one continental African residency annually. Next year a third will be extended to a woman in the African diaspora.
It’s the brainchild of Benon Lutaaya, a rising star on the South African art scene who remembers feeling appalled by the data from the arts report. “I thought, ‘Let me start a national award in South Africa,’” Mr. Lutaaya said in an interview last month in his Johannesburg studio.
He estimates that he has spent about a million rand, or $84,000, so far, believing that it will help level the gender playing field while raising Africa’s profile in the global art market, and its share of the $67 billion it generates.
Mr. Lutaaya knows what it means to fight through adversity. Abandoned by his parents, later a street child in Kampala, Uganda, he managed to get a scholarship to a university. In 2011 he won a residency at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg, which offered a studio and materials. He said he made the eight-day journey overland with a packet of cookies and a bottle of water. When the three-month Bag Factory residency ended, Mr. Lutaaya said he found part-time janitorial work, but soon also found himself, again, hustling to sleep indoors, making a loaf of bread last a week. He collected discarded newspapers and cut them into pieces for collages that he initially peddled for a few dollars.
A few years and breaks later, Mr. Lutaaya has grown into an outsize presence. The scraps and flecks of newsprint work like Impressionist brush strokes: up close it’s hard to see the image, but a few steps back you see poignant portraiture. Last December, at a sold-out solo show in Cape Town, one work went for 500,000 South African rand, about $40,000 — a soaring figure for any contemporary Africa-based artist not named William Kentridge.
Mr. Lutaaya’s premise is that success in the art world depends as much on business savvy as it does on creativity and technical skill. Women of color need more opportunities to learn how the business and society of art works — from galleries to agents, collectors and selection committees. It robs them of possibility, but it is a loss for the whole continent, he said. And as time goes on, they often get discouraged and abandon their efforts.
“They need to develop from within the system in a way to give them enough exposure to know what’s going on, to engage with the broader community, locally and globally,” Mr. Lutaaya said. “Once they do that, they became also great mentors for other young people they meet.”
For Ms. Dass, the fresh air of success also blew through the curtain of her family’s disapproval. They have since restored their relationship. But the journey has given her something even more vital.
“I’ve found my voice and what I want to talk about,” she said.
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