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'Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists' opens at WIELS
Installation View Of Body Talk at WIELS.

By: Koyo Kouoh

BRUSSELS.- This exhibition addresses issues of feminism, sexuality and the body, as they play themselves out in the work of a generation of women artists from Africa active since the late 1990s. Bringing together artists from different parts of the continent, this group exhibition strives to define and articulate notions of feminism and sexuality in the work of women artists whose body (their own or that of others) serves as a tool, a representation or a field of investigation. In their work, the body manifests itself, whether sequentially or simultaneously, as a model, support, subject or object.

In ‘The Body Politic: Differences, Gender, Sexuality’ (in Contemporary African Art Since 1980) Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu evoke the gathering of Igbo Women in 1929 in the city of Aba, in Nigeria. This gathering, where women used their naked bodies to protest the tax policies of the British colonial administration, stands as a powerful picture of the meaningful use of the body by Nigerian women. The event in Aba is remembered as one of the first historical occurrences of a modern Nigerian women’s movement, and also an example of the critique of colonial power. Manifesting the naked female body is a practice deeply ingrained in traditional African cultures as a means to expel injustice. A notable instance happened in 1819 in Nder, a small village in the north of Senegal, whose history is marked by the tragedy of the self-immolation of a group of women who preferred to kill themselves and their children rather than fall prey to the Arab and Moorish slave traders.

The critical resonance of a specifically African – and black – feminism, together with the spread of artistic practices to international networks, have given shape to the development of a black feminist art. Stemming from the continent and the Diaspora, this black feminist art depicts bodies that continue a tradition of activism and freedom of expression. Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body presents a combination of newly commissioned and existing works dealing with the issues raised by such exposed bodies.

What is an African female black body? Is it the supreme object of patriarchal sacrifice? Is it the sacred, stained body, transgressing the boundaries of race and gender in the way it stages and embodies history? Is it all of the above?
Let us recall that this body-vehicle is inscribed in a feminism whose originary history can be traced to Egypt in 1923, to the formation of the Egyptian Feminist Union, the first African feminist movement, led by Huda Sha’rawi. In the early 1980s, some people preferred to speak of Womanism, rather than Feminism, considering it ‘a more inclusive feminism’ defended by African-American author Alice Walker. This preference for Womanism over Feminism among some black women deserves to be mentioned: it stems from the marginalization of women of colour in the most prevalent forms of feminism, and from the fact that African women and those of African descent have been disappointed by white radical feminism, which they see as often oblivious to the realities of black women. This unity of purpose – and the quest for it – is what can be found in the work of the artists shown here.

The works by the six participating artists can be seen as so many ways of reexploring, reintegrating and reincarnating the body; and the media of contemporary art – performance, photography, video, film, installation – are so many means to achieve that end. The works reference historical and political figures, they recreate modern personas and reanimate past and present bodies. This is the case with the recurring, and haunting, presence of Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman, known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ or ‘Black Venus’, an exposed and violated body-object that has become a fixture in the discussion of black body politics. Each of the participating artists is particular in the way she materially positions the body – her own or an abstracted form of it – in a story, and in its rereading as a singular space within an increasingly homogeneous world. It is this diversity and subjectivity of forms and answers that Body Talk aims to uncover.

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'Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists' opens at WIELS

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