The World Catches Up With African Women

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“…it’s a circle not a trickle down effect.” Ms. Adwoa Kufuor, Advisor on Gender and Women’s Rights

What a week for Women in Ethiopia and Africa in general, with the appointment of ten Female Ministers; highly credentialed, committed and experienced; it is substantial. The symbolic impact for young girls and society as a whole is also important. On the fine art front, attention has also slowly but steadily been turning towards African women as noted in publications such as Black Enterprise, Forbes and Artsy.Net amongst others. The common thread between the women in government and art is the growing recognition for the contributions and role of African women.
Black Enterprise, Ida Harris writes, “Now that artwork by black women are ‘trending’ in the mainstream art world due to high sales at auctions and acquisitions by notable collectors, there can come a time when their work is less attainable. The same way Amy Sherald shot to fame after being revealed as the artist behind former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait … can apply to the many working professional black female artists from all over. Invest now, so you won’t be sorry later.”  Though the change is incremental and mostly seen in West and Southern Africa including artists such as Nigerian Peju Alatise and Botswanian Billie Zangewa, Ethiopia is also one to watch for emerging female forces.
But before I go forward, let me reflect on a woman who may well be considered the first female Ethiopian contemporary artist. Martha Nassibou, daughter of Dejazmatch Nassibou Zamanuel and Woizero Aztede Babitcheff born in Addis Ababa in 1931, was taken with her family from Ethiopia to Italy to live in captivity in 1936. Martha subsequently studied at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Art Students League in New York resulting in her first exhibition in 1945 in Addis Ababa on the occasion of the visit of Queen of Greece. She also worked at the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, commissioned to illustrate children’s books and went on to reside in Europe in 1964. The little known Ethiopian artist continued to paint, exhibit, and accept commissions from portraits to large Ethiopian inspired canvases with experimentation into electronic paintings in the early 2000’s.
Knowing the history, power and potential of African women, I have always surrounded myself with strong Sistars. In the context of art I use the term strong because talent alone is not an exclusive benchmark. Instead the artist’s ability to articulate and execute concepts with confidence, fearlessly and flawlessly is what I find soul stirring. This type of artist also manifests their importance as a marker of time, space and circumstance. According to Forbes, “An Art exhibition is a confluence of creative minds and the perfect opportunity to understand the current thinking of a country’s intelligentsia.” Tangentially, I take the liberty to apply this to our current Cabinet, while in the same breath challenging exhibitors to increase female artists. I confess. I too am guilty as charged. So in an effort to reform my ways and lead by example I have been researching and visiting studios and solo and group exhibitions in my quest to select artists for an upcoming group exhibition.
One artists selected is Million Birhan, who says, “Art is that has been given from the heavens and it is my duty to use it, if I do not then I believe it will be taken away from me.” I think I can take liberty here again, replacing “heaven” with “high officials”, but let me share more about Million.
The twenty-something painter and sculptor has a host of awards and exhibitions in her portfolio including Award for Excellence, Afro-Chinese Arts and Folklore Festival in Cairo and solo and group shows at Asni Gallery, Ethiopian National Museum, Alliance Ethio-Francias and Dabanga Gallery-Khartoum. A visit to her studio, on the edge of Addis, was well worth it as her treasure chest of new and older works in watercolor, collage, sculptures etc. proved exceptional. Million’s work tackles powerful topics from identity to spirituality saying, “…my creations are what I know, what I understand and what I imagine.” We will see more of her on the horizon as we attempt to reverse what 87 year old African American artist Faith Ringgold, told Artsy.Net about the visual arts industry, being “more sexist than racist.”
Ms. Adwoa Kufuor, Advisor on Gender and Women’s Rights, sums up it up best, “Positive developments in laying the foundation for equality between men and women is a true demonstration that change is under way and evidence of a renaissance. However, it is not a new phenomenon for women to contribute to political or social change…and in an interrelated world, we should commend countries that place equal participation of women in social, cultural and political affairs on the agenda. Aware and fully informed towards gender empowerment we should not forget it’s a circle not a trickle down effect.”

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.