“Souv-reine:” a visual investigation into what it means to be a woman today ?

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Exhibition Souv-eine, Installed view
Exhibition Souv-eine, Installed view.

Ain’t I a Woman?” The question is attributed to Sojourner Truth and is thought to have punctuated the speech she delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Ohio (USA). In the powerful speech, the civil rights activist underlined women’s ability to stand on an equal footing with men. Since then, “Ain’t I a Woman?” has become a shorthand to castigate the feminist movement for turning a blind eye to the plight of black women and a rallying cry for black women’s rights movements and feminists worldwide.

One hundred and seventy years on, it is legitimate to reprise that question and examine what it means to be a woman in other times and other places. Specifically, what does it mean to be a West African woman today? And more specifically still, what does it mean to be a Beninese woman today?

Even the most balanced answers from the most nuanced responders would imply that being a woman today still entails at some point:

Being subject to restrictive gendered social norms,

Seeing fellow women’s bodies being sexualised and objectified in visual representations,

Living without the knowledge of the contributions of foremothers,

Witnessing the tools and methods previously used to « othering » black people being tragically and successfully deployed against women.

Against this tidal wave of engineered amnesia and structural violence, the exhibition “Souv-reine” opens up as a temporary and sheltered space, which foregrounds multiple stories of defiance. Five contemporary artists, Moufouli Bello, Sophie Negrier, Sènami Donoumassou, Johannès Mawuna, and Ishola Akpo, have brought to life alternative narratives using their medium of choice: painting, photography, sculpture, and tapestry. Each artwork recounts a singular story. In addition, each artwork sets in motion a dual dialogue, with other artworks and with the viewers invited to question their definitions and perceptions of womanhood.

The show’s title is a play on the French word Souveraine, which translates as Queen or ruler, and references the African Queens featured in the show. Beyond the etymological definition, the title emphasises women’s agency, their ability to forge their destinies against all odds. Their determination is most tangible in Ishola Akpo’s photographic series Agbara Women” (Women of Power), first exhibited in 2020 at the Zinsou Museum in Ouidah (Benin). The series of fictional portraits pays homage to African Queens such as Queen Nzingha of current-day Angola and Tassi Hangbé present-day Benin, whose existence has been almost expunged from oral and written historical records.

Souv-reine, Installation view, Ishola Akpo Agbara Women Series
Souv-reine, Installation view, Ishola Akpo Agbara Women Series

Most of these Queens were distinguished warriors who valiantly fought to preserve the freedom of their respective queendoms. (The oddity of the word queendom, compared to the more frequently used kingdom, is a testament to the unfamiliarity of language that describes the reality of women being in power). Akpo, drawing on art history’s royal portraits, depicted them not on the battlefields but seated, wearing their full regalia, and exuding controlled power. In lieu of a historical vacuum, now stand contemporary images, which act to restore the legacy of the Queens and repair the ignominy of amnesia.

The concerns about the biased process of memorialisation at the heart of the series “Agbara Women” find new resonance in Sènami Donoumassou’s sculpture of a contemporary recade for Tassi Hangbé. The recade is one of the most important royal insignias of the successive rulers of the Kingdom of Dahomey (which was located in the middle of current-day Benin). None existed for Tassi Hangbé, the Queen who assumed her deceased brother’s identity at a moment’s notice to lead the army into a crucial battle. She returned victorious and is thought to have ruled the kingdom for about three years, between 1709 and 1711. Three centuries later, in 2018, the art and cultural space, Le Centre (located in Cotonou-Benin), initiated a creative act of historical reparation that led to Donoumassou designing a unique recade for the forgotten Queen.

The sculpture stands apart with its thin and curvilinear shape. Whereas Kings’ recades are made of wood and are hoe-shaped to symbolize strength and power, the Queen’s seamlessly blends wood, bronze, and raffia to denote power and flexibility, spirituality, and music. It is a rendering of what the Queen was as a ruler and beyond: a lover of music, and a paternal aunt, the literal meaning of her title –Tassi – a spiritual mediator and guardian of traditions.

The erasure of Tassi Hangbé and other African Queens is not fortuitous. It follows a familiar pattern in a long story of a systemic obfuscation of women’s achievements. In an interview for the fourth African Feminist Forum, the Nigerian-British writer and scholar Dr. Amina Mama highlighted the pivotal roles women played in liberation movements and their absence from historical records. “Women have made the most enormous contributions, and yet it is constantly erased.”

It has often fallen upon activists and artists to tear the veil of silence and add missing elements to what increasingly appears to be a partial history written according to gender fault lines and aimed at glorifying men and obscuring women. In 1965 Nigerian artist Uche Okeke painted Aba Revolt (Women’s War), a vivid haunting depiction of the revolt of Igbo women against colonial rule in 1929. It was, wrote Chika Okeke-Agulu in Postcolonial Modernism, “the first major organized challenge to the well-established southern Nigerian colonial regime.” To this day, this crucial historical rebellion has remained largely unknown outside of Igbo circles and some small history and art circles.

Moufouli Bello, Exhibition Souv-reine
Moufouli Bello, Exhibition Souv-reine

Even if some art pieces have acted as sporadic counter-points to dominant narratives, art is not insulated from society. More often than not, the art world has replicated lopsided power relations observed in broader society with, among other things, the marginalisation of female artists and the objectification of female bodies. From Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) to Ingres’s Odalisque (1814) and its many other iterations by other artists, the nude female body has been a titillating topic in representational art. Moufouli Bello follows in the footsteps of artists who resisted and challenged that long history. The female character in her painting is self-possessed and self-assured, staring back at the viewers. Against a background teeming with traditional symbols of Benin, Bello’s work raises new questions about the process of creating an identity at the point of juncture of tradition and modernity.

Sophie Negrier’s images of areolas push the issues of identity further with the close-up pictures utilised on moke-up identity cards. If the usually banned images of the areola, considered too sexual to be seen, become the singular signifier of identity, what makes a woman a woman? Does her identity reside in her biology and her body? There is no set response. For now, the series of images titled “Icamiabas, featuring a wide range of areolas in various shapes and forms, underscores how womanhood is not a monolithic concept and can accommodate diverse realities. Metaphorically, her work points to a myriad of ways of being a woman and to paths that stretch beyond the strict social straitjacket designed by society.

Women who venture off the beaten social tracks and take these unusual sinuous paths are at the heart of the photographic series “Ain’t I a Woman by Joannès Mawuna. The series is dedicated to ordinary women who dare to enter male-dominated industries to become metallurgists. Without fanfare, they pick up the mantel of their unknown predecessors. They are burning down existing social boundaries, demonstrating what a woman can do and does when she has the freedom to choose. “Souv-reine” doesn’t have the pretension to have all the answers, but the show confronts viewers with a wide range of questions. The way society formulates the answers to these questions will determine whether, one hundred and seventy years from now, the sovereignty and agency of future generations of women are sufficiently recognised for them to no longer feel the need to rhetorically ask, “Ain’t I a Woman?

The group show “Souv-reine” at the French Institute in Benin ran from March 03 until April 04th.

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