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The ‘eves’ still hurdle culture, discrimination


Celebrated artist, Peju Alatise (left); African Artists’ Foundation and founder of Female Artists Platform, Mr. Azu Nwagbogu; LifeHouse and Zebra Living, Mrs. Ugonma Adegoke and broadcaster, writer and moderator, Ms Wana Udobang at Art Africa Forum discussing ‘Where Are the Women in Visual Arts?’ weekend… in Lagos

Celebrated artist, Peju Alatise (left); African Artists’ Foundation and founder of Female Artists Platform, Mr. Azu Nwagbogu; LifeHouse and Zebra Living, Mrs. Ugonma Adegoke and broadcaster, writer and moderator, Ms Wana Udobang at Art Africa Forum discussing ‘Where Are the Women in Visual Arts?’ weekend… in Lagos

Patriarchy manifests in various forms and at different spaces. Anote Ajeluorou, who attended Art Africa Forum where the subject of discrimination against women in art profession was discussed, reports.

ALTHOUGH it was a forum designed to appraise the challenge of visibility facing female artists in the country and giving them a voice, its outcomes resonated in wider ripples to include the problems hindering women from achieving maximum potentials in the various professions. The central question, ‘Where are the women in visual arts?’ could also easily have applied to women in engineering and other technical fields and why fewer women make inroads in these professions.

The panel was a lively and informed one consisting of celebrated artist, Ms Peju Alatise, curator, Mrs. Ugonma Adegoke of LifeHouse and Zebra Living and Mr. Azu Nwagbogu of African Artists’ Foundation and founder of Female Artists Platform. It had broadcaster and writer, Ms Wana Udobang moderating. Art Forum Africa is the joint initiative of Udobang and founder of The Sole Adventurer, Ms Bukola Oyebode. Ford Foundation and Kingdom of Netherlands were sponsors.

Oyebode lamented the low visibility of female visual artists as against their male counterparts and said it signaled a wrong and one-sided narrative of the art scene. She sued for an all-inclusive one with women also enjoying a pride of place.

Udobang also noted the centrality of affirming female voices in the narrative of visual arts practice in the country, noting, “It’s important that women are not written out of the historical narrative in visual arts. It would be doing our future, the future of emerging artists a great disservice. The arts are about storytelling and this also means that we will experience the dangers of shutting out diverse narratives”.

For Alatise, being labeled a female artist was a misnomer as it tended to place a limit on what she could do simply because she is a woman. According to her, “Using the terminology of female artist is demeaning. I’m an artist, has always been an artist. Choosing art as my career, I didn’t think my gender was going to be a barrier. However, I realise you cannot get away from gender. It’s always a problem, my gender. That we’re still talking about this issue means there’s a problem”.

Nwagbogu noted that over the years and all over the world, there was institutional and even cultural discrimination against women artists. He called for an even platform to dismantle all such anti-social barriers that hinder women from attaining their full potentials. He stressed the role of education and enjoined established artists to inspire young ones to aim for the top.

Among the challenges militating against female artists from finding their groove are cultural inhibitions that start from the home and the school, it was stressed. For instance, society expects women to study certain courses and not others in school. Beyond innate talent, the pursuit of a visual art programme is demanding physically, and women are assumed to be the least candidate for an art class.

Another dimension is the desire of parents to foist certain courses on their children and wards that totally ignores a child’s natural talent and propensity towards a particular course or subject of his or her choice. Moreover, the way Nigerian school curriculum is structured was faulted, especially as it creates a division between science and art subjects, with children being compelled at an early stage to make a choice on what to specialise years later. This does not give students a rounded outlook but narrows their worldviews from onset.

As Alatise put it, “They (parents) make us decide too early what courses we should do. I had to choose a technical course far too early even when I loved literature. So, making children make choices too early is wrong. Architecture wasn’t really natural to me, but I had to study it because I had to make a choice early when I didn’t know what it entailed. The culture doesn’t support women. At the university, you had to pick courses where you don’t get sexually exploited because of your gender and not because you’re not good academically”.

As a female artist, Alatise stated that doing commissioned work also exposes a female artist to sexual exploitation. Female artists are expected to sleep with the man in charge of payment before she could get paid.
Also, the panelist agreed that the demanding nature of practising art is another reason women artists are far fewer than their male counterparts. A woman is expected to marry, raise children and cater to the needs of her family. As an artist who needs long bouts of solitude to create art, difficulty arises as to what time she could allocate to her art and family, a situation that soon creates tension in the home. Her willingness and society’s expectation from her to make a good home soon compel her to make a choice between homemaking and her art. Art suffers irreparably to the point of being abandoned altogether.

Adegoke said gender bigotry is an entrenched cultural phenomenon even in the finance world where she had worked before switching over to promoting culture. Having provided the platform to showcase numerous artists, it soon dawned on her that 95 per cent of the artists were men. The realisation jolted her to a point where she had to ask, ‘Where are the women artists?’ She then began to consciously seek them out so she could exhibit and give them visibility.

According to her, “I didn’t have to seek out male artists. 95 per cent of those I work with are male. I had to seek out the female artists. Storytelling is where you can debate and take ownership of the story. Gender bigotry can’t be avoided. Bigotry goes even deeper; it exists even in the finance world where I’m coming from”.

Majority of female students pursuing art education, it was noted, abandon art practice later in life and migrate to other areas on account of the discrimination and cultural bias against them. Mentorship, it was stated, was needed to encourage sustained interest among female artists so they could take it up as a lifelong career worth pursuing.

Most frustrating for Alatise, a feminist, and other women artists is the fact that anything a woman does is first viewed from the narrow prism of gender before it could be accorded any credit. As an artist who has far exceeded most of her male counterparts in production and quality, Alatise finds this attitude irksome and consciously rebels against it. She asserts her feminist rights and calls for affirmative action to deal with the discrimination against women even in spheres where they ordinarily excel.

As she noted, “The culture in which we in is the most determinant of perception of women”.

Also stressing culture inhibition for female artistic development, Dr. Peju Layiwola of Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, said her own mother from the royal court of Benin City also suffered from lack of appreciation as an artist and she almost discouraged her from pursuing a career in art.

AS a way forward, it was generally agreed that there was a need to change perception and the cultural orientation of society at large on how women in the professions are seen. Importantly, women were urged to take ownership of the narrative of their profession by utilising the various platforms available like traditional and social media.

Adegoke advised, “Making yourself known or heard today is not a big issue. Artists with stellar practice will always be noticed. What will move female artists forward is making the best art. I don’t think there are male or female issues going on. Your work needs to be visible along with your personality, too”.

Education, mentorship and female group dynamics, it was agreed, were factors that would help female artists leapfrog. Adegoke sued for the education of art collectors and patrons alike on how to collect art. Also, she said artists and enablers like collectors and curators needed to be connected in the proper direction. Both the panel and audience members canvased support for female artists from government, the family and the husbands so that female artists could perform to their best abilities.

Alatise said mentorship was needed to reorient young women who were yet to make a choice yet and a new way of thinking through the creation of platforms. It was also agreed that women needed to be given a voice just as Dr. Layiwola urged documentation as a vital part of the narrative so that women doing great things and breaking barriers don’t get excluded from the mainstream.

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