Art exhibition questions age-old gender roles in Zimbabwe
A self-portrait shows Nothando Chiwanga covering her face with a yellow miner’s helmet while money spills over the edge of the traditional African reed basket she holds in her lap.
The artwork is called “Immortal” and juxtaposing a helmet from an overtly male-dominated job with a delicately woven basket commonly used by women at markets challenges age-old gender roles in a strongly patriarchal country like Zimbabwe.
For art curator Fadzai Muchemwa, it speaks directly to a woman’s struggle to break free of those traditional roles.
“Being a woman and being a woman working in Zimbabwe is a hard hat area,” she says.
“It’s not specifically about working here, it’s just that sometimes there are multiple layers to expectations that women have that makes it a minefield.”
Chiwanga’s “Immortal” is one of 21 works by female artists that are on show at the southern African country’s national gallery.
The exhibition is titled “We Should All Be Human” and opened on International Women’s Day on March 8.
It’s a homage to women’s ambitions and their victories.
There are paintings, photographs, textiles, sculptures and ceiling installations, and they broach issues like migration, the economy and health.
But also far more contentious subjects in Zimbabwe like a woman’s reproductive rights.
Some of the art seeks to provoke discussions around pregnancy and maternity leave.
“I think historically it has been the case that women artists or women really are the subject of paintings, sculpture of art but we don’t find may women artists collected by museums. But as you can clearly see in this exhibition, women have the expertise and they do have the platform and there has been a movement around the world to ensure the equal representation of women,” says Muchemwa.
Artist Nothando Chiwanga heads to her caravan studio to work on her craft.
The 26-year-old is one of just a handful of 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.
“You need to reinvent yourself, you don’t have to remain the same person that you were long back. So mostly when I do my works, when I did that piece I was telling myself that I need to reinvent the concept whereby people, they just see the image of a person, the face of the person, but the work that you do can even represent your identity,” she says.
Chiwanga like to explore the complexities of women’s lives in Zimbabwe.
She’s mindful 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, the United Nations children’s agency says, citing teenage pregnancy and early marriage as key factors preventing girls completing high school and pursuing careers.
Previously, girls could marry at 16 in Zimbabwe while boys had to be 18 but 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 country’s attitudes are reflected in Chiwanga’s life, where her mother is supportive but other family members badger her about getting married and finding a “proper job”.
“I need to make sure that I aim to perfect myself as a woman. It can be an economic setup, social, so that people can understand that the female Black body needs to stand out there, not to mean just the saying that you need to wait for marriage,” she says.