By Victoria L. Valentine
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART is celebrating women artists. Over the past five years, the Smithsonian museum has doubled its holdings of art by women. Showcasing some of the recent acquisitions, “I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa,” opened in June. The exhibition includes works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Sokari Douglas Camp, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Zanele Muholi, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Wangechi and Billie Zangewa, among others. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the show features 30 works by 28 modern and contemporary women artists, spanning three generations.
A range of mediums are on view, from paintings, sculpture, video and installations, to ceramics, textiles, and fashion. While the artists hail from 10 countries, more than half of them were born or are based in Nigeria and South Africa.
The artists confront issues such as the environment, politics, and faith and identity, race, gender, and sexuality in portraiture by Akunyili Crosby and Muholi and through the lens of objects like Batoul S’Himi’s laser-cut pressure cooker making a broader comment about women’s place in the world.
With the title of the exhibition adapted from “I Am Woman,” the feminist anthem Helen Reddy sang in 1971, “I Am…” is part of a conscious effort to foreground female African artists. In 2012, the museum launched the Women’s Initiative Fund, designed to bring attention to women artists through exhibitions, acquisitions, publications, and global strategic partnerships.
Founded in 1964, the National Museum of African Art has been collecting modern and contemporary art for six decades. In 2014, the museum assessed its holdings and found only 11 percent of the named artists (some early traditional works are by unknown artisans)in the permanent collection were women.
The analysis was undertaken as a part of the women’s initiative and has informed its acquisitions in the five years since. Improvements have been made. Currently, women artists represent 22 percent of the collection. The increase is significant, doubling the representation of women artists. Nonetheless, it means to this day, nearly 80 percent of the museum’s collection of more than 12,000 artworks is by men.
“This museum is dedicated to the fullness of Africa’s history, from ancient to contemporary times, and doing justice to this rich history is not possible without attention to the women who have shaped it,” the museum’s director, Gus Casely-Hayford, said in a statement about the exhibition. He joined the museum in 2018.
“This museum is dedicated to the fullness of Africa’s history, from ancient to contemporary times, and doing justice to this rich history is not possible without attention to the women who have shaped it.”
— Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the National Museum of African Art
THE LACK OF DIVERSITY in the African art museum’s collection is generally reflected across the museum field. Art museums have been evaluating their diversity in recent years—the representation of women and people of color among curatorial staff, leadership ranks, and board membership, and also among the artists in exhibitions and permanent collections. The findings have been unfortunate, prompting new programs, acquisitions, and investments to begin to address the shortfalls and inequality.
In March, the Public Library of Science published a diversity assessment of major U.S. art museum collections. The study found the representation of artists was overwhelmingly disproportionate-85 percent white and 87 percent men.
Internationally, a selection of art museums have undertaken initiatives and programming focused on women artists, whether promoting their historic, often overlooked, contributions or responding directly to gender imbalances.
At the National Museum of African Art, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., “I Am…” is one of the outcomes of the ongoing Women’s Initiative Fund.
The show features new additions to the permanent collection. A survey of the works on view shows 18 of the 30 works were acquired through gifts and purchases between 2014 (the year of the collection assessment) and 2018.
“The works of art and artists included in ‘I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa’ reveal the compelling contributions of women to the issues that have defined their times,” curator Karen E. Milbourne, said in a statement. “It also offers insights into one institution’s efforts to strengthen the diversity and inclusion of the artists represented within its collection.”
The exhibition “offers insights into one institution’s efforts to strengthen the diversity and inclusion of the artists represented within its collection.” — Curator Karen E. Milbourne
THE NEW ACQUISITIONS include “Wedding Souvenirs” (2016) by Akunyili Crosby, the Nigeria-born artist who is based in Los Angeles. Acquired in 2017, the mixed-media painting is a self-portrait inspired by the work of Francisco Goya that incorporates meaningful mementos from Akunyili Crosby’s wedding as well as her brother’s.
Ethiopian-born Aida Muluneh lives and works in Addis Ababa. Her photographic images create and distort reality. “Sai Mado (The Distant Gaze)” by Muluneh was inspired by an Amharic saying, which translated means “I waited for you in a distant gaze, my eyes melted like ice awaiting your return.” The digital photograph was made in 2016 and acquired by the museum in the same year.
Created in 2011 and acquired in 2014, an untitled work by S’Himi speaks volumes about the status of women in the world. Born in Morocco where she lives and works, S’Himi turned an ordinary kitchen tool into an art object, laser-cutting a map of the world into a red pressure cooker, essentially “putting women on the map,” as the museum describes it.
“Batoul S’Himi has converted cookware into an ambassador that can roam the globe and assert a place for women in it. At once quirky and eloquent, her sculpture takes the most domestic and local of spaces—the kitchen or hearth—and situates it within a global picture,” the museum description states.
“S’Himi’s selection of a pressure cooker draws attention to the underwhelming representation of women and women’s issues on a global level, while also slyly alluding to the mounting pressure to change this.”