African women in the arts; shaping the way we see, hear & think

“…black women are not outsiders to the art world …we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests.” Rujeko Hockley, Co-Curator, Whitney Museum
Most may be familiar with International Woman’s Day celebrated on March 8th, however, in 1962, ten months before inaugural OAU Summit, African women converged in Dar es Salaam for the First Pan African Women’s Conference, launching Pan African Woman’s Day on July 31st. The day celebrated the contributions and achievements of African women towards the advancement of Africa in various areas including the arts.
The historic role of African women in the arts was typically relegated to the silver screen, singer/songwriter or subject in paintings. Presently, doors are being flung open and glass ceilings are being shattered in music, fine art and film. African women are taking their place in male dominated scenes, bringing fresh perspectives, experiences and aspirations to the table; shaping the way we see and hear the world.
Here in Addis Ababa we have our own, Konjit Seyoum, promoter of contemporary Ethiopian art and curator for leading Ethiopian artists. In 1996 she established Asni Art Gallery as an independent social space for exhibits, workshops, residencies, artist talks, children activities and more with food and art as catalysts for conversation and critical thinking. The curator, cook, translator recently earned a Masters in Fine Art & Creative Practice.
Across the continent in Lagos, we boast Bisi Silva, one of the most powerful voices on African fine art. She founded the Center for Contemporary Art Lagos and is an independent curator with an impressive list of credentials including a degree from the Royal College of Art, London. Bisi is adamant about her efforts to “expand (the) notion of curatorial practice,” and is committed to bridging the gap between artists’ work and the public. She curates exhibitions for a list of prestigious artists including El Antsui and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere.
Zimbabwe born-Washington, D.C. raised curator, Rujeko Hockley, began her career at the Studio Museum in Harlem, followed by a post at the Brooklyn Museum, where she co-curated the We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985 exhibition. By 2017, the Whitney Museum brought her on as assistant curator where she is able to continue her discourse through art stating, “we wanted to show that black women are not outsiders to the art world …we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests.” Living her words Rujeko will organize the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
Finally in fine art, way across the water in Chicago, we meet Frances Guichard, owner/operator with husband Andre, of one of the premier art spaces in the US, the Guichard Gallery. While Frances is also an artist, she is an established curator, moderator and judge for the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series; coordinating submissions of over 3,000 artists. But her specialty is aligning artists with collectors seeking particular pieces. Frances is making her mark on an emerging art scene between Africa and the Diaspora with clients in the USA, Europe, Senegal, South Africa and the Caribbean; connecting dots and mapping new and lucrative territories for fine art.
While talking Diaspora, please meet Ethiopia Habtemariam, a 30-something highly influential Sistah in the music industry. She is the President of Motown Records, historically known for legends like The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. But modern day Motown, under Universal Music Publishing Group, is producing hit after hit under Ms. Ethiopia’s watch. She says, “I love proving people wrong.” LOL. Ethiopia IS the one appointed, some may even say anointed, to find and develop songwriters, artists, and producers for hits to be heard around the world. The industry may have assumed this pretty young woman of Ethiopian heritage could not cut it, but she has been at the helm of a hit factory with artists such as Chris Brown and Ciara; while managing one of the “hottest urban rosters in music” according to Billboard, from multi-platinum and GRAMMY award winning acts like Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Ashanti, Prince and art aficionado Swizz Beatz.
But allow me to close with one fast rising voice in film, Ethiopian born and bred, Hermon Hailay.  An award-winning film writer and director, Hermon directed several critically and commercially successful Ethiopian DVD films. In 2015 it all changed. Her first theatrical film, Price of Love, was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival followed by a screening at FESPACO where the film won the Special Prize of Ouagadougou. Since then several other awards have been bestowed on the bold and beautiful Ethiopian film-maker’s work.
So if you celebrated Pan African Woman’s Day great! If not, make sure next year you do so by reflecting on the past, where we were solely subjects in the arts, to the present where Sistahs are rising in the ranks! African women are beautifying the back rooms of the art, film and music industries with new ideas, approaches and narratives. They are mentoring others on the journey and they are changing the way we see, hear and think. Society must do more to ensure women fulfill their potential by providing opportunities and access to the arts, sciences and technology for girls early in life. This will ensure Pan African Woman’s Day celebrations boasting the contributions of African women yesterday, today and tomorrow in the arts.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.