Intersections:  Gender and Art in the Global South

Art has often been employed as a means to question (or conversely normalise) latent power relationships in society and to consider how difference is socially constructed. Artists who work from a position of gendered identities in particular have grappled with difference and its representation. Early feminism considered how gender might be constructed along binary lines, and questioned how this construction might be subverted, through a returned gaze for example. Recent investigations into gendered identities scrutinize the intersection of gender with race, social position and political strictures, and have led to new understandings of how complex gender is in representation and the act of looking.

Papers in this panel are addressing the situated construction of gender in art from the Global South. As a concept which includes countries that have been colonised politically, racially, ideologically or all three, the Global South is at times still regarded as peripheral to the Western centre of the art historical canon. There is scope now for articulating a distinct gender-oriented art history through consideration of contemporary examples of art work from these areas that subvert practices, cultures and gendered identities. 

Session Convenors:   

Karen von Veh, University of Johannesburg 

Landi Raubenheimer, University of Johannesburg 


Sanelisiwe Nkonyane, Curriculum Designer: Swaziland National Curriculum Centre 

Wearing your heart on your sleeve: Reclaiming Black Female Identity in my work as well as work by Zanele Muholi 

Growing up in a society where strong views on the representation of the female body are grounded by customary practice known as Kuhlonipha, it is important for me to use my body as an act of reclaiming my identity as a woman. I find myself in a space where I exist as wife, mother, daughter and working woman with restrictions on how I must behave. In this paper I question the complex paradoxes of the Nguni custom of Kuhlonipha, which contribute to the erasure of women. Within Kuhlonipha women are required to display submissive behaviour of “respect through avoidance” (Herbert 1990:455). This also speaks to how a woman should dress and be represented in society. I will talk specifically to my 2022 work Wearing your heart on your sleeve alongside Zanele Muholi’s (2019) Inile II, London

Through concepts of embodiment, self-representation, and ‘cultural disobedience’ as strategies for interrogating patriarchal views of women within this particular practice (Kuhlonipha), the use of ‘disobedience’ in inverted commas is intended to place emphasis on the paradoxes of my identity. I attempt to unpack how one can challenge notions of kuhlonipha in subtle yet confrontational manners. I will further focus on concepts pertaining to Black feminism underpinning the case for women’s freedom within a patriarchal society and advocating gender equality. Through a feminist framework I investigate concepts of embodiment and self-representation by enacting cultural disobedience which challenge the power structures underlying roles performed through the acts of looking and being looked at.  

Brenda Schmahmann, Professor and SARChI Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture, University of Johannesburg. 

Caesarean Births and Exotic Species: Christine Dixie’s Images of Childbirth 

Often working in mixed media but best known as a printmaker, South African artist, Christine Dixie, represented childbirth in works that she started in 2005 while pregnant with her second child. This project began with a large piece called The Interior and was followed by the Birthing Tray series. Dixie returned to the theme in late 2015 and 2016, reworking The Interior and reconfiguring the matrices for the woodcut prints in the Birthing Tray works into sculpted reliefs which she named The Harbingers.  

In this paper, I reveal that Dixie’s representations of childbirth merge feminist and postcolonial concerns. Works on this topic have enabled feminist responses to her own experiences of giving birth as well as other formative moments in her life. But, while rooted in personal experience, her works also respond to Western images of childbirth as well as bestiaries and maps that are informed by, and bound up with, histories of colonization. I suggest that, through these references, Dixie’s work invokes commonality between an ‘othering’ of women in early modern discourses about childbirth and perspectives about the ‘otherness’ of Africa by colonizers. And in keeping with Linda Hutcheon’s argument in A Theory of Parody (1985) that the likeness between an image and its source works to underscore aspects of their difference, Dixie’s engagement with imagery emanating from the medieval and Renaissance West enables her to stress the specifics of her contemporary South African context.  

Katy Shahandeh, SOAS, University of London 

Reimagining the Feminine Self: Strategies of Subversion in the Works of Contemporary Iranian Women Artists 

This paper will explore how contemporary Iranian women artists question and reclaim Iranian female identity (which has systematically been under threat from both an autocratic regime and a Western world that has “othered” them) in their works. The identity found in these artists’ works is complex and, quite often, paradoxical, standing at the crossroads between Tradition and Modernity, East and West, Private and Public and other such competing binaries.  It has been formed, in great part, as an identity of resistance in response to the state’s Manichean worldview which has been increasingly at odds with the individual desires of Iranians. The search for the “other” is, therefore, also a search for the lost “self” – a desire for unification with that part of their identity which has been denied them.   

In dealing with these issues, artists have also had to invent new ways to convey meaning whilst under the scrutiny of the regime, resulting in imagery that is highly couched in metaphor and allegory and often performative in its staged and scripted presentation of the “self”, projecting the self onto quotidian narratives of alterity and dissent, by emphasising women’s bodies as sites of social contention whereupon discordant visual signifiers compete to criticise State and/or Western-prescribed identities.  By scrutinizing and resisting such prescribed narratives these artists deconstruct conventional interpretations and known epistemological structures and make us question the veracity of these historical accounts offering, in their stead, an alternative feminine identity and narrative, which is both destabilising and pluralising.   

Shonisani Netshia, Lecturer: Department of Visual Art,  Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg  

Exploring the role of Black Female Characters in a selection of Kudzanai Chiurai’s artworks 

Kudzanai Chiurai creates contemporary artworks which probe the history of colonialism exploring its social, racial – and particularly – its gender exclusions. Chiurai repositions and recasts the Black female as the lead character in his works in order to challenge the narrative of how Black females have been represented in the history of art. This paper focuses specifically on the series We Live in Silence from 2017 in which Chiurai’s evocative photographs, paintings, and videos explore and depict the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, colonialism and independence alluding to distinct incidences and material associations. I explore how he offers new and more varied definitions of femininity by employing more than one definition for a single character. 

Chiurai creates new identities for the female protagonist in We Live in Silence through orchestrated, theatrical visual traces, recreating, manipulating and subverting colonial historical artworks such as Caravaggio’s biblical episode of Judith beheading Holofernes (c. 1598–1599 or 1602), and the Pieta (1497) by Michelangelo in order to temper with what the gaze sees. He employs technological and photographic conventions in order to prevent the lead character in his work from ‘being reducible to a single definition of femininity.’ I propose that his artistic interventions which can be seen as an amalgamation of various visual characteristics such as ‘historical convention, artistic style and aesthetic perception’ (Klein 2012:71) as a means to allow for alternative gendered perspectives of the representation of Black females in the global south. 

Irene Bronner, Office of the South African Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture, University of Johannesburg 

Suited up, seeing through: Subverting male subjectivities in the work of South African artist Paul Emmanuel 

The tailored jacket as a symbol of male authority has long concerned South African printmaker and multimedia artist Paul Emmanuel. In his 2021 exhibition, Substance of Shadows, Emmanuel subverts elements of this symbol to examine male subjectivity formation critically and intersectionally, particularly the roles that white men have played in the histories of South Africa. He does this through his characteristically sensitive, vulnerable yet unsparing self-representation. The paper considers how Emmanuel’s use of carbon paper as a medium, as well as his techniques of scratching, stitching, and suturing, extends his enquiry into a queer, psychosomatic engagement with gender, landscape, grief, and desire. 

To create these works, Emmanuel laboriously scratches away the black film from sheets of obsolete carbon paper, rendering them diaphanous and skin-like, so that the viewer may ‘see through’ their layers. He follows garment patterns to (re)create some of these, ‘stitching’ them together with archival adhesive tape. Works are suspended as three-dimensional ‘presences’ in the exhibition space, appearing either to rise out of, or disintegrate into, the carbon residue. The material insights offered by these works into how to find passage through gendered subjectivities invites, the paper argues, a form of memory work that is directed not primarily towards the past but rather towards the present and for the future. Furthermore, the paper elaborates on how temporal duration as a factor in the artist’s creative process is a starting point to understand these works as not only a subversive but indeed a recuperative form of queer grief work, central to his broader practice.  

María Victoria Guzmán   (She/Her/Hers),Midlands4Cities Postgraduate Researcher 

University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies 

Cosas de género/matters of gender: embodied engagements with landscapes, traditions, and epistemologies in the Latin American South  

Género”, the Spanish equivalent of “gender”, is a peculiar word. Encompassing broader meanings than its English counterpart, it references not only sexual identities, but also the materiality of fabrics and cloths, and, more generally, all kinds of classification systems and categorizations. I will outline the works of three contemporary artists from Latin America that, just like the word “género”, twist and muddle fixed definitions, identities and traditions by going beyond mere representation of marginalized genders or challenging rigid systems of meaning, towards acts of world-making and imaginative speculation. Sebastián Calfuqueo, Paula Baeza Pailamilla and Natalia Montoya each problematize existing systems of “género” in different ways, breaking down binary conceptions and destabilizing boundaries of inside and outside, looking and being looked at.   

  Calfuqueo works with the materiality and symbolism of bodies of water, their fluidity and changing nature, opening their body to queer affects and effects from within and without. Similarly, Baeza Pailamilla stretches and twists traditional textile techniques, through collective, embodied and erotic processes and results. Finally, Montoya problematises dominant epistemologies through cartographic and photographic works that create new knowledges through a compost of the old, the new and the foreign. All three challenge “either/or” thinking by producing art that embraces the dynamics of “both/and”, adding layers of meaning and going beyond fixed identities or essentialising “géneros” (be they sexual, racial, social or economic). Through performative artworks where oftentimes their bodies are vulnerably exposed, they question easy distinctions between male/female, nature/culture, indigenous/cosmopolitan and tradition/disruption, showing the complex entanglement of identities and géneros that inhabit the South today.   

Cas Bradbeer (they/them), Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum

Cabinet (2014-2015) and A Queer Museum (2020-2021): Curating Space in Vietnam for Non-Normative Gender Expressions’ 

Cabinet (2014-2015) and A Queer Museum (2020-2021) were two Vietnamese LGBTQIA+ heritage projects led by the Hanoi-based artist and curator Nhung Đinh (born 1979). They each consisted of two exhibitions populated by artefacts that Nhung helped local queer people to donate, and thus was curated in accordance with Nhung’s penchant for facilitating interactive cultural experiences by working constructively with Vietnamese queers. In this way, they provide insights for co-curating with artists of marginalised genders from the Global South. 

In her 2020 article for the Museum International journal, Nhung reflected on her work with Cabinet. She articulated the mistakes she perceived it to have made—particularly concerning the provision and acknowledgement of agency for Vietnamese LGBTQIA+ people over their contributions to these initiatives. The bulk of this controversy concerned how the Vietnamese government and foreign development agencies partially denied the autonomy of the local queer and transgender people over their contributions to Cabinet. This presentation exemplifies such critiques, partially nuances them, and considers how Nhung avoided replicating these problematics in Queer Museum

The paper’s central issue—autonomy—will be evaluated primarily in reference to the ethical terms outlined by the theorist Gayatri Spivak and the Museums Association’s ‘Code of Ethics’. Through this exploration of autonomy, I will analyse how Nhung managed to negotiate the various stakeholder demands—generally characterised by the funding institutions like UNESCO on one side, while on the other is the Vietnamese queer participants she involves, for whom Nhung’s goal was to establish “museums as living entities in which the Vietnamese LGBTQIA+ community plays the central role”.  

Pfunzo Sidogi, Tshwane University of Technology 

The Bongi Dhlomo Collection: Towards a discourse on black women art collectors 

In 2017, the Javett Foundation invited Bongi Dhlomo, an artist, curator and arts administrator extraordinaire to establish a collection of artworks produced by black artists during the twentieth century that would serve as a companion to the Javett Family Collection. Officially christened as the Bongi Dhlomo Collection and exhibited for the first time at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria in 2022, this compendium—comprised of 138 artworks—is a unique example of institutionalised black art collecting in South Africa. In this paper, I explore aspects of the Bongi Dhlomo Collection project and the implications of this rare museum-based art collection put together by and named after a black woman. Underwritten by the Javett Foundation, this project enabled Bongi Dhlomo to subjectively collect artworks on a significant scale and cost. In this presentation, I use the story of the Bongi Dhlomo Collection as a nodal point to reflect on institution-size art collections facilitated or owned by black women. I am specifically interested in how the experiences and positionalities of black women collectors are imprinted onto the collections they give birth to. More decisively, I reflect on the transformative and disruptive meanings of ascribing naming and/or ownership rights of institutional art collections to black women from the Global South.   

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