Artists throughout the decades and art genres have portrayed ‘woman’ in
various guises. There are those who celebrate her shape, her presence, her allure.
Those who have questioned her role at the hands of society, a subject much debated
through time – perhaps now more than ever. Then there are those who understand the
search for her Self – sometimes elusive, sometimes assertive, sometimes careless of confused.
From the 23rd February to the 17th March at the Peter Scott Gallery, courtesy
of London Southbank’s Hayward Touring exhibition, and with no entrance fee,
Christine Eyene brings us a taste of this search for Woman from a world of African
origins – five photographers, Hélène Amouzou (Togo, Belgium); Majida Khattari
(Morocco, France); Zanele Muholi (South Africa); Senayt Samuel (Eritrea, UK); Lolo
Veleko (South Africa) depict their personal pursuit of an identity, sometimes bringing
to the forefront some challenging and thorny issues. A few of these artists seem to
stand out above the rest.
For starters Khattari keeps you guessing, hiding her naked subjects behind
swathes of fabric rich in patterns and texture. The photos display close-ups of a
woman shrouded in cottons and silks, including full body shots in the same style
of two women, half hiding, half displaying their naked bodies behind opaque and transparent materials. This artist hits you with direct provocation in her last shots, fearlessly demanding that you pay attention to her message while portraying grace and
elegance (in stark contrast to Zanele Muholi). Yet one wonders, are these women
confident or unsure behind their long veils of cloth and netting? Suddenly you have
landed on just the question Khattari wants you to consider – how does a veil define a
woman’s sense of self? Surely she is lessened somewhat, and yet… these women are
glamorised behind their cloaks. They are separate, unknown; the subject of fantasy
for many, hidden and revered, perhaps diminished to the limited guesses of those who
lust after them, perhaps by the functional nature of a defined role.
Then Muholi brings us the garish portrait of a woman shouting for recognition
(figuratively speaking) despite the discrimination she faces in her native South Africa.
In this series of shots she sits, or stands, as the bold and colourful centrepiece in
an otherwise bland and bare setting, wearing a sash clearly stating her identity to
the observer – and in so doing sends a message to those who show her demeaning
prejudice. Apparently black lesbians are a bizarre and unaccepted oddity. Her
subjects’ in-your-face and perhaps clichéd depiction of her sexuality might generate
a few grimaces – if you find shows of body hair distasteful. But those who recognise
the feminist cause will surely grant Muholi a nod of respect, whether harbouring
reservations about her appearance or not.
My favourite, and the most touching series of all, is Amouzou’s portrayal of
her immigrant experience to Belgium’s capital. She uses the run-down attic room
she called home as her setting, as well as her own suitcase as a prop. The colours are
washed out and dreary. Amouzou features in the photos, blurred and wiped out as she
uses a special photographic technique to give the impression of appearing ghostly,
her image fading. It is a heartbreaking visual of a woman experiencing the disquieting
loss of her own significance. The lack of recognition she feels through her long years
of waiting for Belgian citizenship is poignant. Haunting, silent, yet deeply telling,
Amouzou’s work commands attention. It is quietly moving as her image blurs and
wafts in and out of her desolate attic room.
Admittedly Eyene’s exhibition lacks anything new, running you through old
themes and giving you a sense of ‘been here, discussed this…’ You probably won’t
be moved to question your own perceptions of these women if you’ve come across
the subject before. Feminism and a woman’s search for her role, identity and self-
expression seem passé. And yet, these African artists give us a remarkable reminder
of things debated and forgotten. Things that, in fact, remain deeply relevant – and
unresolved. Indeed for these women the questioning of their identity continues,
whether assertive or hesitant. One leaves the gallery with a renewed appreciation for
the issues these artists face while exploring what it means to be a woman.