About five years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art determined that only 11 percent of the artists with works in its collection — those identified by name, as opposed to anonymous traditional artisans — were women. The museum then embarked on an ambitious push to acquire more work by women, doubling its holdings by female artists to 22 percent today.
Drawn from its permanent collection, the exhibition “I Am . . . Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” highlights these efforts, featuring modern and contemporary work by 27 artists, including some who are internationally recognized, such as Ghada Amer, Zanele Muholi and Wangechi Mutu, and others whose names will probably be unfamiliar to most visitors. About two-thirds of the pieces were acquired since 2014. Most have not previously been shown in Washington.
Taking its title from Helen Reddy’s 1971 feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” this extremely varied show emphasizes the uniqueness of individual voices rather than any overarching theme or narrative. There’s a wide array of media, formats, styles and subjects on display, including two short videos, a room-sized installation, multimedia sculptures, textile works, ceramics, paintings and photography.
There is far less geographic diversity, however: Almost two-thirds of the artists (all but three of whom are living) hail from or are based in Nigeria or South Africa, and another five are Kenyan or Ethiopian. This isn’t surprising given that those countries are the economic and cultural powerhouses of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as some of its most populous nations. But the scant representation of artists from the continent’s 20-some francophone countries seems an unfortunate oversight.
Aptly placed at the entrance is “Wedding Souvenirs,” a self-portrait by Nigerian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Set in a frame within a frame, Akunyili Crosby’s painted likeness is surrounded by memorabilia from her own wedding and that of her brother. Drawing on wide-ranging influences — including Spanish master Francisco Goya, global culture and the artist’s own heritage — it’s an image with which many visitors will easily identify.
“What you see is a woman who is . . . in possession of her space, in possession of her story,” said curator Karen Elizabeth Milbourne, during a recent media tour of the exhibition. “She’s not looking at us. She is looking within herself for all that she can contribute. It seemed to really sum up the experience of ‘I Am . . . .’ ”
Fellow Nigerian Patience Torlowei’s haute-couture dress (titled “Esther” after the artist’s late mother) is likewise deeply personal, while also incorporating transnational references. The stunning silk gown — which the fashion designer created for the museum’s 2013-2014 exhibition “Earth Matters” — is painted with colorful images that at first seem designed to dazzle. On closer inspection, they depict the ravages of war, oil extraction and the mining of “blood diamonds.”
“This is about the truth of what’s going on in Africa,” said Torlowei, who attended the exhibition preview. “There’s so much destruction going on, and there’s so much wealth. This dress is not from Nigeria, it’s from Africa. I happen to be born into Nigerian soil, but it talks about [all of] Africa.”
Other works deftly address the physical and mental burdens placed on women. These include an untitled piece by Batoul S’Himi, in which the Moroccan artist has carved a map of the world into the side of an aluminum pressure cooker, in a commentary on the constraints and expectations of gender.
Adejoke Tugbiyele’s eye-catching sculpture “Past/Future” critiques the lower social status of LGBTQ people in many parts of Africa. The Nigerian American artist combines metal drain covers, palm stems, wires, netting and other everyday objects to form an androgynous figure, bent down in a position that evokes both hard labor and sex work.
The photography in “I Am . . .” is also compelling. Particularly so is “M-Eating, Sufi,” an almost metaphysical composition by Italian-born Senegalese photographer Maïmouna Guerresi that depicts two Sufi men, dressed in long white robes and tall black hats, sitting at a narrow table in front of a textured green backdrop. Also striking: Ethiopian-born Aïda Muluneh’s “Sai Mado (The Distant Gaze),” a photograph staged in her signature style, which involves models in colorful body paint.
Among the few overtly political works is a haunting, at times surreal short video by Penny Siopis. Overlaying grainy found footage with an imagined first-person narrative, “Communion” is based on the true story of an Irish nun who was stabbed and burned to death in 1952 by a mob of black South Africans, enraged after police dispersed their anti-apartheid protest.
If there is little that ties these disparate visual expressions together, other than the gender of their makers, that seems to be the point: Just as Africa is far more diverse than the monolithic view many outsiders have of it, so too are the continent’s female artists — and their impressive output — just as impossible to pigeonhole.