HARARE, Zimbabwe — A self-portrait shows Notando Chiwanga covering her face with a yellow mining helmet as money spills over the rim of a traditional African cane basket she holds in her lap.
The artwork, a collage called Immortal, evokes age-old gender roles in a highly patriarchal country like Zimbabwe, juxtaposing a helmet from a clearly male-dominated job with a delicately woven basket often used by women in markets.
For art curator Fadzai Muhemwa, the work speaks directly to a woman’s struggle to break free from these traditional roles.
“To survive as a woman in Zimbabwe … one needs a helmet,” Muhemwa said as she gazed at the collage, which combines photography and paint in a deliberately blurred but striking image.
Chiwanga’s Immortal is one of 21 works by artists that have been exhibited at the South African country’s national gallery since International Women’s Day on March 8. The exhibition, titled We Must All Be Human, is a tribute to women’s ambitions and their victories, Muhemwa said.
There are paintings, photographs, textiles, sculptures and ceiling installations. They touch on issues such as migration, the economy and health, but also much more contentious topics in Zimbabwe, such as women’s reproductive rights. Part of the art seeks to provoke discussions around pregnancy and maternity leave.
“Immortal” calls for change and is an invitation for women to reinvent themselves, said visual artist Chiwanga.
“You don’t often see women doing this kind of work like mining,” she said. “In Africa, women are mostly looked down upon. People just see the face or the body, but the work you do can also represent your identity.”
In her collage, Chiwanga’s cane basket, money, satin skirt and her neatly manicured fingernails are manipulated with blurred colors in red, yellow, brown and black to show the complexity of Zimbabwean women’s lives, Chiwanga said.
She points out that women make up more than half of the country’s population of 15 million, but are still significantly underrepresented in higher education and formal employment.
More girls than boys graduate from primary school in Zimbabwe, but one in three women was married before the age of 18, according to the UN children’s agency. UNICEF has cited teenage pregnancy and early marriage as key factors preventing girls from graduating high school and pursuing careers.
Previously, girls could marry at 16 in Zimbabwe, while boys had to be 18. A Constitutional Court ruling led to changes in the law last year setting the legal age of marriage and sexual consent for boys and girls at 18.
Chiwanga, 26, is one of the few young women to graduate from the Zimbabwe National School of Visual Arts and Design. She was one of 30 artists from 25 countries whose work was included in the Notes for Tomorrow exhibition on the COVID-19 pandemic, which was shown in the United States, Canada, China and Turkey in 2021 and 2022 .She also had a show last year in Nigeria.
The ‘We Must All Be Human’ exhibition in Zimbabwe was designed to raise the profile of young female artists and encourage them to continue creating art amidst the constant societal pressure to marry, have children and change their focus towards a life filled with homework.
“You see a promising student, two or three years later they’re married and done with art,” Muhemwa said. “In our society, married women are not expected to be entertainers. doubles are celebrated.”
“We are presented more as subjects rather than as creators of art. That’s a narrative we need to change,” she said.
Phineas Magwati, who teaches music and art at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe, goes further. A woman’s decision to pursue a career in art often causes “conflict” in her family, he said.
This is reflected in Chiwanga’s life: her mother supports her art, but other family members push her to get married and get a “proper job,” she said.
Much of her art is conceived in a rust-brown caravan in the sprawling yard of her family home in the suburbs of the capital, Harare.
Sitting on a rough old wooden bed, Chiwanga works on her latest piece, covering her face with a transparent white veil and moving a camera back and forth to capture the right angles of herself. The photos are then placed on matte paper and processed with color.
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges because as a woman you have to be married when you’re in your 20s,” she said. “Even growing up, you’ll be told that a woman should strive for marriage, you shouldn’t strive to be great.”
“But as an artist, I told myself that I really want to achieve, I have to be big. You should not force a woman to marry before she can improve herself,” she said.
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