The project starts from the observation that black women are being erased from the public sphere, and at the same time suppressed in our predominantly capitalist society. Not only do black women have no voice, but they are also viewed through a lens that associates them with a collective identity on the one hand and with a culture that is seen as inferior and only talked about in clichés on the other. From this observation, the curator Anne Wetsi Mpoma has invited (mainly) Belgian female artists with African roots to show works that are anchored in their artistic practice and that can act as beacons for a new view of their history. Some of these women artists created works during a residency that lasted several weeks, others chose an existing work for the exhibition.
Anne Wetsi Mpoma:
“As a curator, I have strived to illuminate collective history through the formulation of questions or through personal stories. Those stories explore the way they are passed on, as well as the concept of cultural heritage and the supposedly subordinate culture, of which we as black women are the heirs. We constantly invoke the concept of creativity to refer to the vitality of artists originating from the African continent or considered children of that continent. Works of art have become consumer goods that are supposed to confer social prestige and an identity on those who possess them. In a world where everything is becoming large-scale, the art market faces a demand for originality. This demand for innovation is often met by seeking “inspiration” in Africa or in other non-European civilizations, which are considered “different.” The risk here is that “by being constantly marginalized, the artists start to exploit the stigmatization with a certain identity by playing with their ‘authenticity’. (…) Such a view may show the artist’s ability to assess the situation well, but transforms him or her into a subordinate.” (Bruno Trentini in L’authenticité postcoloniale des artistes : entre émancipation des Suds et voyeurisme économique de l’Occident, 2019).
In this exhibition, we “sell” you neither creativity nor authenticity. What the artists show you is their humanity and dignity. Their right to exist as women and as artists in their own right. The thread that connects the selected works stands alone. The works represent a response to the erasure of an entire category of artists from art history.
At a time when many art institutions are wondering how to feminize their collections, the issue of black women artists or women artists of African descent still does not seem to be on the agenda. However, these artists do exist and are alive and well! By occupying the space of the Strombeek Cultural Centre for two months, they show how they resist, what they believe in, confront us with their own story about what drives them. They use different materials that are in line with the contemporary or current art of the 21st century, their age ranges from 19 to 50 and moreover, in their careers they are at different stages and the questions they ask are diverse. But all of them show their true her, their real self, without burdening the visitor with a sense of guilt or emphasizing the extent to which society has become accustomed to looking “through her“.
Right from the start of this project we wanted to respond to how the body of the black woman is made invisible in the postcolonial context in our society. How do we survive the organized erasure and categorization as belonging to a subordinate culture? Installations, audio installations, video, multimedia, photographs paintings on canvas, on aluminum, on paper, etchings, paper cuts and light, family archives and histories, movement, dance, chemical changes through fire, by bringing things together in a new way: these are the means of expression these women use to tell their stories. Each of them uses image or sound to project their inner self or view of the world outward.”
In Studio S, Debbie Engala of the Nymphose Collective (a collective of artists of African descent studying art in Brussels) opts for a kind of abstract geometry. She paints on paper and what counts for her is mainly the effect that the object produces and less the object itself. This allows her to express an emotion and to focus on the completion of a gesture and on her obsession to leave a trace of it.
Leïla Nsengiyumva (Collective Nymphosis) delves into her memories of her childhood through her family’s photo archive. There she discovers the love that binds her parents, as well as the hills of their native Rwanda, where she herself has never been. She reconstructs this dream universe with embroidery, tapestries and edited photographs.
Lauren Lizinde (Collective Nymphose) is the youngest of the collective and of all the participants. She explores her place in society and the erasure of her own history within her family circle with a video work. Her parents are from Rwanda, but never told her about her native country. The young woman searches for the reason for this and how she can find a place for herself in society.
Finally, from the Collective Nymphose, Luna Mahoux presents her work. She is a young Ethiopian who grew up in a white family that adopted her at the age of three. With a video installation, Luna explores the femininity of the black woman as propagated by young girls or on social networks like Instagram. Her search confronts her with her self-image, her own femininity and Africanity. What is an African woman? How can she integrate everything related to it into her person?
By exploring the place of the black body in the public or intimate space, Agnès Lalau and Wata Kawatza bring an update of entire pieces of colonial history.
For example, erasing a Congolese grandmother from the family history (Missbluu) or dissecting the message of female Kifwebe mask (Nzete) makes visible the violence in the relationship rulers-overlords created when two peoples met. The mask leads the artist to explore how so-called ethnographic objects are still exhibited today in Belgian and European institutions. This aspect is also addressed in an animated film made around prints of wood engravings on tracing paper in Shaba. All the violence of the oppressive regime becomes visible in the verticality of the Congolese bodies depicted here. Missbluu is a video installation in which silhouette of a black woman emerges who moves like “a vine of a Congolese rubber tree.” It is through that movement and her research that artist, as she tells herself, found words and healing for her family’s history.
In her video installation Re-Narration Tutorial, Laura Nsengiyumva does not simply take inspiration from archives. She uses old copies of the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal (which are now worth a lot of money) to create a new paper medium. She tore up the magazines – a liberating gesture, according to her – then processed the shreds into a mash of paper. On it, she applied images of an unknown Congolese soldier who fought for Belgium in World War II, and of a female character who symbolizes the erasure of blacks from the country’s history.
Asia Mireille Nyembo wonders how long black women’s bodies will continue to bend under the yoke of patriarchal and postcolonial domination (How Much Longer!) Nyembo has a scientific education and has indulged in all kinds of chemical experiments on woven fabrics. She reports on these in a large-scale multimedia installation. Dissatisfied with the history of “African wax” – a printed fabric presented as the cultural symbol of African women – she burns rags of fabric and transforms them until they tell their own story. “There is no longer any question of letting the others do the talking in our place,” she says.
Rokia Bamba‘s sound installation, Stigmate(s), ties in with this idea. Four women of African descent answer questions from the artist there. Her first question is to state their name and first name. For most people, the question of what their first name is seems particularly innocuous, but for a Belgian woman of African descent, that question can have an unexpected bearing on her identity: is it her Christian baptismal name, her European first name, or her Congolese first name? The name that appears on her identity papers or the name with which family members address her? The conversations gradually take on a more intimate tone and immerse the visitor in a sound bath.
On the ground floor, we are again confronted with the theme of the invisible woman in the universe of photographer Hélène Amouzou, who presents a series of self-portraits. Amazou shows photos of performances (2008-2011) that she staged in the intimacy of her attic, hidden from indiscreet gazes. This was a way for her to respond to the imperative to remain invisible because she was not staying in Belgium in a “regular or legal” way. In this way, the artist calls attention to the people who are often referred to by the term sans-papiers: people who live in constant fear that they will be snatched from their daily lives at a simple police check. The mise-en-scène of the photographs plays with the notions of presence and transparency, which the photographer has subtly captured in small formats that force the visitor to come closer and look attentively.
Odette Messager Watshini‘s work also further explores the place of the black body in space. In her intimate portraits, she presents an update on power relations in the colonial and postcolonial context. Tatu Mamu and Family Portrait (paintings respectively on canvas and aluminum) show a young girl struggling with her family history, which is directly linked to the history of the prevailing power relations during the colonial regime. We thus witness how a system of political domination permeates intimate relationships.
In the film Occupy Von Puttkammer (Part II), Pascale Obolo investigates the traces of the old colonial power relations in the public space – not in Belgium or in France, as is often the case, but in Cameroon. Why was this castle – a copy of a German castle – built in the early 20th century in Cameroon, then a colony of powerful Germany? Who lives in that castle now? Why didn’t anyone ever think of tearing it down?
Dispelling myths and stereotypes associated with black women in Western culture: this is what Muhiba Botan aims to do with her work The Myth of the Other, a series of eight photographs. With those photographs, she denounces the primitive associations that colonial propaganda concocted to justify dominance over the local resources and bodies of colonized peoples. The result is a transformation of her body that responds to how black women, reduced to a race, and white women are presented in the mainstream media.