Updated: Apr 15
South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the arts are no exception. The art market continues to capitalize on African art, yet African culture is relentlessly portrayed as inherently primitive and patriarchal. While black womxn outnumber men in creative spaces, the number of ‘successful’ and celebrated artists that are womxn is disproportionately small.
On the surface, black womxn are being prioritized through affirmative action initiatives, but this movement is deceiving. Black womxn are tokenized and expected to assimilate to the status quo. One seldom sees representations of black womxnhood that veer far from the neat narrative of Western logic.
In her paper How the cult of femininity and violent masculinity support endemic gender-based violence in contemporary South Africa, Pumla Dineo Gqola notes how certain patterns of complicity prop up gender-based violence and require feminist undoing. From hair straightening to skin lightening, ideas of 'good' black womxnhood can be restrictive and oppressive. Winnie Madikizela Mandela once said: "The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly and even protect it..."
But throughout African cosmology and philosophy are examples of fluid expressions of gender and personhood. Izangoma re the perfect illustration of this. Thought at times to be inhabited by ancestral spirits of varying genders, they exist in a non-binary space, which allows them to access sacred knowledge.
Embodying light, rain, and fertility, the Zulu deity Nomkhubulwane is also known as Mother Earth. The word Nomkhubulwane can be translated as 'shapeshifter'. Visual artist and isanuse Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa is known for having produced various representations of Nomkhubulwane in his writings and cultural sites as pictured above.
The rainbow, an ephemeral symbol of new beginnings is associated with Nomkhubulwane. Through this goddess, we celebrate femininity and fluidity and perhaps allow ourselves to move forward from colonial binaries of gender. In this way, we might be able to navigate this world more freely and explore better understandings of how we truly exist in this world.