A Diaspora canvas: Exploring the feminine heritage of African art

If creativity isn’t about community in one-way or another it is dull at worst and provoking at best. Artists that manage to emphasize the spiritual, aesthetic and social elements of living are those that bring to us gifts of understanding.

Artists that exemplify this idea are musicians like K’Naan, Baaba Maal, Nneka, Blitz the Ambassador, Fela, Simphiwe Dana. Architects like David Adjaye. Fashion designers like Oumou Sy and Alphadi. Film producers like Ousmane Sembène. Writers like Wole Soyinka, Tsitsi Dangarembga and many more.

I’m not meaning that an artist’s work should mould into a box of clustered interest, rather I’m critiquing how in the absence of a social purpose of creativity, successful creative talents are treated as demigods. This individual-centered mentality is what upholds the idolatry and superstar mentality we have. Once an artist gets addicted to fame, and they often do, their art risks becoming repetitive.

I found it almost impossible to narrow down the following list of female contemporary painters of African heritage to seven, so this post may soon have a follow up. To start with, however, the work of these artists has been of recent inspiration to me and particularly for the reasons spoken about above. Their work explores spaces of womanhood, race, patriarchy, feminine deities and much more.

1. Catherine Anyango

Catherine Anyango – Heart of Darkness, illustration, 2006

I came accross Catherine Anyango’s work at RCA Black, an exhibition curated by the AACDD at the Royal College of Art, which for the first time brought together the work of the college’s African and African Caribbean art and design alumni, past and present. Catherine Anyango is a Swedish/Kenyan artist and film producer. The publication of her graphic novel adaptation of Heart of Darkness was met with critical acclaim and it is from this collection that this encompassing piece is taken from. I am enchanted by the figures in the background! What do you think is happening in this painting?


2. T. S. Abe

T S Abe, Ray Willows Rays

At only 22, Abe’s drawings have already graced a multitude of mediums; from album covers to exhibition walls to prestigious magazines and a London bus. It’s no surprise, I find her sketches mind-bogglingly real looking. I mean this self portrait looks like a photo, right? Amazing.


3. Adelaide Damoah

Adelaide Damoah, And Now
Art to me is a reflection of the spirit of the times, the very definition of the term Zeitgeist. Every time I create a piece it is a reflection of something from that time, from that moment. Something personal or something which reflects society. Either way, it is a way of documenting. I strive to avoid censorship so that I may progress in my ability to express and relate through my work each time I create a new piece
These are the words of Adelaide Damoah who is currently also running “Art Success,” a series of interviews with visual artists from around the world discussing the concept of success to be read on her blog. Her Supermodels collection, that this piece belongs to, captures quite daringly the imprisonment many women face in the name of beauty.
4. Pia Cabble
Pia Cabble, Amazons Answer
Pia is a Finnish/African American artist currently based in London. Her work is based on three concepts; ancient civilizations, like those of the Mayans, Egyptians, Persians etc.; the female body and its goddess-like qualities and the meaning of ritual around the world. She works with items that are used or recycled, including her canvases. The piece pictured here is for example painted on a piece of recycled plywood where someone had written the famous words of JFK,”It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Talk about character!

5. Shiri Achu

Shiri Achu, Prince Sokoro in the middle

Shiri Achu was born in Cameroon and now splits her time between her country of origin, the UK and the USA. Her art seeks to capture the spirit of her subjects and draws insight from her travels, from Africa to still objects, from the human form to the human in action. I find her pieces, of which some by the way are available in the MsAfropoolitan Boutique, to be enthralling because they simulataneously capture the fragile beauty of life whilst also exploring the darker, morbid side of humanness.


6. Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, Instant Gratification, 2005

I am a huge fan of Mickalene Thomas! The New Y ork-based artist’s work explores and challenges the representation and objectification of women, and black women in particular. Her work stems from her long study of art history and the classical genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life. She explores notions of beauty from a contemporary feminist perspective infused with the more recent influences of popular culture and urban cool edginess. This piece makes me think of hip hop, erotica, blaxploitation female heroes and artist/model Betty Davis.


7. Tamara Natalie Madden

Tamara Natalie Madden, Ambiguity

Last year the lovely Afri-Love blog posted an interview with Tamara Natalie Madden and since then I’ve been haunted by her work. In a good way! I think it’s the bird theme in her paintings mixed with the beautiful colours and flowery illustrations that evoke something ethereal in me. In the interview, when asked how Africa inspires her, she replied:

Africa inspires most of my art. I am from Jamaica, but I see Africa every where. The beautiful people, their amazing skin tones, their full lips and thick hair – all of that inspires me. I am inspired by the strength of the people, and I am inspired by their pride and inherent power, and I see royalty in all of them. That is why I paint the images that I paint. African people all over the world have been looked down upon, pushed aside, and their beauty hasn’t been appreciated. I want my work to show that we are decendants of royalty, and that inherently we are all kings and queens.


On that note, how do these painting inspire you? How do you define artistic success?

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  • http://www.tricia-blackbooknews.com Tricia

    Hello M, Thank you I enjoyed seeing this selection. I went to the exhibition specifically to see Catherine’s Heart of Darkness pictures, but actually left having enjoyed seeing the textiles, jewellery and clothes the most It was a brilliant exhibition – fab work.

    I wrote about Catherine’s work on my blog back in May in a short piece on graphic novels – http://www.tricia-blackbooknews.com/2011/05/round-up-20.html It includes a link to Catherine talking about how she created the work.

    This image shows the moment from Heart of Darkness, when Marlow the storyteller, sees Kurtz’s African mistress for the first time. “…along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.” The people in the background are her protectors – “twp bronze figures leaning on spears stood in the sunlight under fantastic head-dressess of spotted skins…” In the book the mistress is clothed and represents the fertile strength and wealth of Africa that is greater than the imperialist yoke, which is shown as dishonest through the protection from the truth that Marlow goes on to give to Kurtz’s fiance, when he returns to England to tell her about Kurtz’s death.

    All the best, T

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Tricia, thanks for the link and sharing the fascinating background of the drawing. I don’t remember that part in the novel, it’s one to reread actually.

      The furniture and textiles were truly beautiful, my friend and I were designing outfits all evening!

      Thanks for stopping by, Minna

      update – recently reread the book and Anyango’s painting seems multidimensional now.

  • Poto

    Quickly, I am not sure if I understand the first painting. It’s really strange. I’m just having a heard time describing how it makes me feel right now. As for the second painting I can’t believe that’s a sketch-up! Come on now. Moving on, I think Adelaide Damoah’s paining is also interesting. That’s probably because I think all women are beautiful. Needless to say, Pia Cabble paintings are breathtaking!

    As for Shiri Achu many of the colours engulfing her character are colors can be seen in a person’s aura/chakras. Like for example, deep red is usually representative of Mother Earth. That’s like the ability to be grounded in the earth plane. or like trying to make something happen in the material world. While orange represents the ability to flow with emotions freely and to feel and reach out to others sexually or not. Has a lot to do with confidence and creativity. Blue represents expression of creativity. While yellow for ego, passions, impulses… I think the degree and multitude of the colours says something about her character. Otherwise, it could just be emblem colors of the Cameroon flag though the Cameroon flag does not have orange in it :)

    The Mickalene Thomas painting looks a lot like the next door neighbour who is also my friends mother so I’m not going go there. But attractive. Everybody needs good neighbours! I will also check some of Tamara’s work out. She looks intense.

  • MsAfropolitan

    Thanks for your comment! great to hear your thoughts on each of the paintings, I particularly like the ruminations on the possible representation of aura and chakras of Shiri Achu’s work, it hadn’t occurred to me but seeing it that way is quite fascinating indeed.

  • Poto

    There’s a pretty good documentary about women before the colonial era thought it was well done. If you can find that I think you’d be inspired more! It’s something like “Queens of Ethiopia” by Dr. Charles Finch. He does another one on Medicine around that time as well if you could find it. Cool!

  • anon

    well i think that there are other artists that do and not just these from african decent and you cannot always tell from the artists name nor their work. just because someone is african doesn’t mean they should only do art that focuses on black people look at gauugin he was a white artist but his work never focused on white people. i think art should reflect the persons interest and their creativity race should not be the main subject matter and british artist sonia boyce who is black does alot of artwork based on what you are discussing and was known before any of these artsits you mentioned

    • MsAfropolitan

      I said “If creativity isn’t about community in one-way or another it is dull at worst and provoking at best.”

      Interpret widely, but don’t make community and race synonymous

      This post was about African-descent female artists. If you want to read about white or male artists like Gauguin and their ‘exotic’ influences this was not the post as the title should have implied

  • jan.de

    ts abe real name is palesa monareng. her art is really good though and the above post does state african decent art hence the first line of the comment:well i think that there are other artists that do and not just these from african decent and you cannot always tell from the artists name nor their work.

    it is good to see a range of art even from female artists as the female art voice is rarely heard and i can only think of khalo and rego as known female artists so it is good to see this post.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment and the info…

      • anon

        rude response

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