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How will women rise from a time of silence?

After 18 months of Covid-19 disruptions, it’s unclear what a devastated South African arts landscape will look like when it emerges on the other side. It’s been a time in which women’s voices in the sector have largely gone quiet. What will clear the path for women to rise again, and in greater numbers, in the business of the arts?

In the lead-up to the 24th Annual BASA Awards and to mark Women’s Month, the BASA podcast hosted a conversation between four extraordinary women to discuss Womxn Rising. Carol Bouwer, children and women’s rights activist, television producer and businesswoman; Hollard’s Chief Marketing Officer, Heidi Brauer; BASA Awards Chairperson, Khanyi Mamba and award-winning musician, Thandi Ntuli, joined the virtual gathering hosted by Samm Marshall.

Khanyi Mamba Carol Bouwer
Khanyi Mamba and Carol Bouwer

The distress of lockdown, shifting roles of women at home, and the intense loss of this time has seen people withdraw. For artists, the platforms for their highly interpersonal work that includes gathering and close engagement, vanished overnight. Carol Bouwer believes this is a critical moment to be purposeful. Making conscious decisions about how we make space for women artists and how women choose to step back into their voices was a strong sentiment shared by all the women in the room, who spoke about an active need for women to speak up and speak out. Musician Thandi Ntuli added that there is a stronger motivation than ever to harness the sector and collectively work on what is needed for all – so that women can thrive as the arts finds new momentum.

A key factor for all the podcast speakers is that women do things in their own way, and while holding space for women shouldn’t happen at the exclusion of men, there was an important need to see, acknowledge and remember women differently. Ntuli cited experiences of being perceived through the lens of the media that reframed her in a way that was uncomfortable. She urges women to tell their own stories and challenge stereotypes along the way.

Thandi Ntuli Heidi Brauer
Thandi Ntuli and Heidi Brauer

Hollard’s Heidi Brauer said mentorship was absolutely critical and agreed with Carol Bouwer who said that in South Africa, any person in a position of success had an opportunity to share, exchange and mentor – even if informally. Brauer said that sometimes just listening and holding space for young people to talk and think was the confidence boost they needed to find their way.

During the discussion, it was raised that the navigation of a way forward was hampered by two key things; Bouwer pointed out that we need to know what we are (that included defining ourselves as individuals, sectors, and brands) and the group agreed that data is needed to understand the landscape as there is currently scant data on women in the arts.  In a report entitled The Employment of Youth and Women in Cultural Occupations in South Africa” (Hadisi and Snowball, March 2019), it was noted that there is significant underrepresentation of young women in cultural occupations (30.3% of youth compared to 37.8% of young men). The long, erratic working hours and need for travel that the arts industry demands could be among the barriers to entry for women who often carry the lion’s share of family responsibilities. Women in cultural industries also had lower rates of tertiary education (23.1%) than men (30.2%).

Gender inequality is not unique to South Africa either, according to Britain’s Tate Gallery, 51% of visual artists today are women, yet 78% percent of the galleries represent more men than women. The global #metoo movement was inspired by women in the entertainment industry where sexual harassment and abuse has been rife for decades.

BASA Awards Chair, Khanyi Mamba, said that BASA was intent on holding the space for developing the representation of diversity in the arts across all their programmes. The BASA Awards were one such space where women were highly visible across many of the finalists selected – even within the difficulties of the pandemic – and was an example of how partnerships were vital to creating intentional spaces for women to rise.

The podcast was released on Women’s Day 2021 on the BASA podcast. Subscribe to experience it and many others that add insight into the business of the arts.

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