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Reshaping women’s work through clay

By Boitumelo Makousu

NWU’s recent virtual exhibition #5WomenArtists – The Art of Clay looks at womanhood and the environment in equal turns.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have brought about ‘the new normal’ but the cultural and creative sector proves that it has tremendous growth of new, innovative, and impactful ways to express what the world is facing.

Contemporary African art has reached new heights, new forms of producing works, and paved new provocative ways in thinking about the state-of-the-arts and starting conversations. Recently, the arts have used virtual exhibitions as a new movement to showcase works on digital platforms through 3-D tours and live broadcasts on social media such as Facebook Live, Instagram, TikTok and other channels. Creative practitioners (artists, curators, and audience members) have begun to re-imagine the future of curation and engagements with arts.

The North West University (NWU) Gallery curator Amohelang Mohajane, has been producing proactive virtual exhibitions that holistically capture current human conditions, experiences, and conversations about economic, social, and environmental changes in South Africa.  The online group exhibition, titled #5WomenArtists – The Art of Clay, ran from 10 April to 11 May 2021. This exhibition featured five women artists namely: Ivy Rihlampfu, Pholile Hlongwane, Boitumelo Machaba, Lerato Moleko, and Prudence Magagula.

The exhibition strongly highlights notions of eco-feminism through the arts, using clay as a medium of expression. Clay is a natural material which contains nutrients that are essential to plant growth. Eco-feminism asserts the special strength and integrity of every living thing and sees ‘parallels between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of women, parallels that are understood in the context of patriarchy.’

The virtual exhibition engages with new modes of viewing art, and addresses themes focused on gender stereotyping in male-dominated working spaces, aspects of faith and spirituality, and environmental awareness. The work of Lerato Moleko particularly focuses on her experience and engagements with women waste pickers in the Vaal region, from her own neighbourhood, who collect waste and then sell it to recycling companies to earn money so that they can provide for their families. Looking at the economic circumstances that came about as a result of COVID-19, especially during the hard lockdown instituted in early 2020, the viewer wonders what happened to these women during that time.

In conversations shared with Moleko, she explains that she uses clay and recycled material, such as paper, to construct figurative and conceptual artworks. In her creative process she compares each ceramic vessel to the waste pickers.

‘I make the ceramic vessels according to how I view these women. They wear their experiences, morals and values, hardships, and situations in what they are and what they do. They confront and overcome every situation that they, as women earning a living by gathering the waste of others, come across,’ she says.

She further explains: ‘I create environmental awareness, display the importance of waste pickers and celebrate their strength. The situatedness of the waste pickers, the situatedness of the ceramic process and my own situatedness as woman and artist are completely interwoven.’ Her vessels are formed by using a technique called Raku, which creates a crackle effect that depicts the experiences of women waste pickers in the landfill – seemingly flawed but whole in a different way.

The online exhibition is experienced differently, virtually, as it would be physically. Keeping in mind ‘the new normal’, the virtual platform allows you to view the work from any angle you wish, and creates a virtual touch, giving the viewer full control of how they want to view the work and the space. What is lost is the exhilarating experience of viewing the works physically and engaging with them eye-to-eye, however, what is gained is the freedom to view however and whenever you want, in your own personal time and space and also to experience the works with Virtual Reality gear.

#5WomenArtists – The Art of Clay focusses on strong themes that provoke new thinking about how humans interface with the world around them. By focussing on clay as the artists’ chosen medium, further questions and concerns about preserving and conserving our environment, and measures being taken to mitigate the exploitation of nature, are raised. Finally, the exhibition’s focus on women’s work and experiences adds another layer of meaning – we admire the strength and resilience of nature and women, but we need to stop the exploitation of both.

Boitumelo Maditshaba Makousu is a Potchefstroom-based creative, cultural and heritage practitioner/archivist, museum tour guide, writer, researcher, arts & culture enthusiast/appreciator, administrator, and BA Hons Tourism scholar.  

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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