HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A self-portrait shows Nothando Chiwanga covering her face with a yellow miner’s helmet while money spills over the edge of a traditional African reed basket she holds in her lap.
The artwork, a collage called “Immortal,” challenges age-old gender roles in a strongly patriarchal country like Zimbabwe by juxtaposing a helmet from an overtly male-dominated job with a delicately woven basket commonly used by women at markets.
To art curator Fadzai Muchemwa, the piece speaks directly of a woman’s struggle to break free of those traditional roles.
“To survive as a woman in Zimbabwe … one needs a hard hat,” Muchemwa said as she gazed at the collage, which combines photography and paintwork in an intentionally blurred yet striking image.
Chiwanga’s “Immortal” is one of 21 works by female artists that have been on show at the southern African country’s national gallery since International Women’s Day on March 8. The exhibition titled “We Should All Be Human” is a homage to women’s ambitions and their victories, Muchemwa said.
There are paintings, photographs, textiles, sculptures and ceiling installations. They broach issues like migration, the economy and health, but also far more contentious subjects in Zimbabwe, such as a woman’s reproductive rights. Some 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, visual artist Chiwanga said.
“It’s not often to find women doing such kind of work as mining,” she said. “In Africa, women are mostly looked down upon. People just see the face or body but the work that you do can also represent your identity.”
In her collage, the reed basket, the money, Chiwanga’s satin skirt and her neatly manicured nails are manipulated with blurs of red, yellow, brown and black to showcase the complexities of women’s lives in Zimbabwe, Chiwanga said.
She points out that women make up more than half of the country’s population of 15 million but are still vastly underrepresented in higher education and formal employment.
More girls than boys complete elementary school in Zimbabwe but one in three women were married before they reached 18, according to the United Nations children’s agency. UNICEF cited teenage pregnancy and early marriage as key factors preventing girls completing high school and pursuing careers.
Previously, girls could marry at age 16 in Zimbabwe while boys had to be 18. A Constitutional Court ruling led to law changes last year setting the legal age for marriage and sexual consent for both boys and girls at 18.
The 26-year-old Chiwanga is one of few young women to graduate from Zimbabwe’s National School of Visual Arts and Design. She was one of 30 artists from 25 countries to have works 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 Should All Be Human” exhibit in Zimbabwe was designed to raise the profile of young female artists and to ecncourage them to keep making art amid persistent societal pressures to get married, have children and change their focus to a life of domestic chores.
“You see a promising student, two or three years down the line they are married and they are done with art,” Muchemwa said. “In our society, married women are not expected to be artists. They are frowned upon, yet their male counterparts are celebrated.”
“We are featured more as subjects and not as creators of art. It is a narrative that we need to change,” she said.
Phineas Magwati, who teaches music and art at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University, goes further. A woman’s decision to pursue a career in art often causes “conflict” in her family, he said.
That is reflected in Chiwanga’s life: her mother is supportive of her art, but other family members badger her about getting married and finding a “proper job,” she said.
Much of her art is conceived in a rusty brown caravan in the expansive yard of her family home in the suburbs of the capital, Harare.
Sitting on a rugged 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 catch the right angles of herself. The photographs are then set on matte paper and worked with color.
“I have faced a lot of challenges because as a woman you have to be married when you turn into your 20s,” she said. “Even growing up you will be told a woman must aspire for marriage, you must not aspire to be great.”
“But as an artist I have told myself that I really want to achieve, I need to be big. You mustn’t force a woman to be in marriage before she can perfect herself,” she said.
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