African women artists in Latin America? Yes, especially in Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean nations of Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, and Grenada. The Afro-Latin heritage, due to the infamous 16th century slave trade, added another cultural layer to Latin America s indigenous roots modified by Spanish colonialism. Intrigued by the artists and their work, I wanted to continue my research in Africa.
My contact was Professor Solomon Wangbogie from the University of Benin in Nigeria. He was also a member of the International Society for Education Through the Arts and had responded to my letter of inquiry, "Come to Africa, and I will introduce you to some of Nigeria's wonderful women artists." I did, and he did. I was amazed by the monumental bronze and cement sculptural forms of Princess Elizabeth Olowu, the painted fabrics of Yoruba myths and legends by Nicki Davis, and Susan Wenger's mythical Osun shrine that evolved from Yoruba traditional beliefs.
I continued my annual travels from 1986 to 1990 and found many more traditional and modern women artists to interview in Mali, Senegal, Morocco, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Egypt. Their art became visible in the U.S. with the publication of Africa Through the Eyes of Women Artists and through a touring exhibit of the same title consisting of my photographs of the artists, their environments, and collected examples of their art. It was sponsored by Exhibit Touring Services of Eastern Washington University. The exhibit is ongoing and has been seen at many museums, universities, and art centers across the U.S.
My interaction with the women artists inspired many new paintings, and gradually a series emerged, Africa Between Myth and Reality. They are my praise song to Africa, especially the women, bringing forth, nurturing, and sustaining all life forms: cultural guardians and healers, mythical goddesses and sexual beings.
At the Schneider Art Museum in Ashland, Oregon, I stand beside one of my paintings, Mali: Madonna (fig. 46). This mythical mother, with her children and animals, symbolizes fertility, but she also transcends from the earth-bound physical to the spiritual realm.
The ancient Osun shrine in Oshogbo, Nigeria, is dominated by the river goddess Osun. With outstretched arms, she welcomes everyone and offers relief for ailments, as well as hope for infertile women who want to conceive. In my painting Nigeria: Osun's Children (fig. 48), a Yoruba priest accompanies Osun and her children are accompanied by a Yoruba priest.Goree Island off the coast of Senegal is infamous for castles with dungeons that held hundreds of thousands of captured slaves prior to their shipment to the United States and Latin America. However, I focus on the present as I portray the vitality of a woman fish vendor in Senegal Creation Myth (fig. 49) (see Gallery IV for figures 46-49). The fish represent her children, life's essence.
Young boys herding goats, a common rite of passage in Africa, also reminded me of Rogue Valley goats and my son Jason. One day in Mali, West Africa, it was very exciting to see many boys and hundreds of goats at a large pond at the outskirts of a Dogon village. Cavorting, scampering, and chasing one another around the rocky hills and ledges, they were a delight to sketch and then to paint, Mali: Goat Boys (fig. 50).
In the ancient Moslem learning center of Timbuktu, in Mali's remote desert region, the Tuareg people with their caravans of camels still cross the desert, transporting tablets of salt. This sense of mythical timelessness inspired Mali, Timbuktu (fig. 51).Kenya in East Africa is home to hundreds of species of animals that live in close proximity. Even the most common, such as antelopes, gazelles, giraffes, wildebeasts, and zebras, seem extraordinary when their forms interweave into an ever-changing kaleidoscopic pattern as they migrate across the plains. In my Zebra Tree of Life (fig. 52), the tree trunk is composed of zebras while the slender Masai people inhabit the branches above.
fig. 53: Kenya: Masai Spirit Quest
1987, acrylic, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
In Kenya: Masai Spirit Quest (fig. 53) (see Gallery V for figures 50-53), the Masai, adorned with elaborate bead necklaces, seek new grazing lands for their herds of cows, goats, and sheep. They are good hunters, and killing a lion can be a rite of passage for manhood as well as protecting their families and their herds from marauding lions.
From 1991 to 1997 (still ongoing), I extended my journeys of exploration to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea. These interviews now compose another book. It is Africa: Women s Art, Women's Lives (1997). Another challenge: visiting Freedom From Hunger (FFH) project sites in Ghana and Burkina Faso, to sketch and interview women for a unique publication, Women Against Hunger, A Sketchbook Journey (1997).
This experience also inspired many paintings based on women s coming together to receive Credit with Education, exemplified by my painting on the book cover, Women's Solidarity, Spirit of "Credit With Education" (fig. 54). The shade of a cottonwood tree is the meeting place for village women who come together to pay back their individual loans of $30 to $50 for self-initiated projects. They also make small interest payments and learn to save money. Health education is another component of these weekly gatherings. Facilitated by promotores or amatrices, they teach about better family nutrition, the need for children s innoculation against basic diseases, treatment for infant diarrhea, and family planning.Ghana: Spirits Rising (fig. 55) expresses women s jubilation at the end of an FFH loan cycle. Old women and young dance, and express their joy of accomplishment. A communal pride and energy, fun to see and fun to paint.Food processing, pounding yam, millet, or other grains is a daily survival routine. Frequently two women share the same grinding bowl, alternating lifting their poles and pounding grain as they talk. The grain feeds body, feeds spirit, as in Burkina Faso: Pounding Millet, Sharing Dreams (fig. 56) (see Gallery VI for figures 56-59).
Yams, very large yams, are a West African staple. Yams require boiling and peeling before pounding. The yam is served like a mound of mashed potatoes. Fingers touch, pinch, and knead the yam into a little ball for dipping it into hot, spicy meat or vegetable sauce. Fingers are then licked clean.
Burkina Faso: Women on the Move (fig. 57) represents a collective energy expressing the exuberance of market day, an exciting event held once a week. Women are on the move with their fruit, vegetables, children, and animals as they buy, sell, and exchange news of family and friends.
In Cameroon: Millet Rhythms (fig. 58), the distant thatch roofs of village homes are like little birds about to fly. In contrast, women with bent backs like rounded arches are rooted in the soil cutting weeds around each millet plant. Tedious work, but they are grateful for the rains that have provided the nourishment for the soil, and eventually food for their families.
Cameroon: Fish (fig. 59) brings back a memory of a tasty meal shared with Peace Corps friends. Outdoors in the early evening, a woman grills fish to tasty perfection. As we eat the fish, drink beer, and converse, the woman is left to her fish-dreams.
b. Africa, Many Peoples, Many Cultures, Much Hope
All text and images © Betty LaDuke.