Africa’s fearless girl urges women forward
It sounds like a good idea — copying Fearless Girl, the statue set up in front of Wall Street’s Charging Bull, in an African context.
There is very little difference between the New York version and Africa’s Fearless Girl that was “welcomed” this week in RMB’s Think Precinct outside its headquarters in Sandton. There is no fuming bull for her to face down, though, just a sign on the opposite wall saying, “Slippery when wet”. But there is a lion, composed of thin segments as though an egg slicer had gone through it.
RMB's co-head of investment banking Emrie Brown’s lot was to perform an egg-dance on Tuesday as she grappled with the symbolisms imposed on the schoolgirl dressed immaculately in uniform, tie and all. The bank's logo is a lion roaring threateningly, but Brown assured the small crowd that the male it signifies is not dominant at RMB.
Not that RMB, she hastily added, wanted to line up male against female — the bank “acknowledges the great legacy of men in banking”.
The statue struck a chord. Young black women in SA do succeed against great odds in male-dominated spheres. So if the statue means someone in the corporate world will be looking out for girls getting an education and taming a lion, a few problems with it can be forgiven.
The overall effect is not as Afrocentric as intended, but unavoidably Eurocentric, alluding strongly to the iconic Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer of Edgar Degas, first exhibited in 1881 in Paris, clothed in a real tutu and a wig. Controversy erupted, and it was called “a flower of depravity” by critics, while later writers said her expression was of someone doing something she did not want to do.
The decision to make 20 maquettes of Africa’s Fearless Girl, which sold out at the Turbine Art Fair, was also what happened to Degas’s work. It was said his model was a young girl who hung around at the stage door of the Paris Opera looking out for what South Africans call “sugar daddies”.
The stance of Fearless Girl — in New York and SA — expresses the sassiness of American child archetypes. The African version has Pippi Longstocking’s characteristic socks, while the Wall Street version has the typical elbows-in-the-side pose of Roald Dahl's Matilda.
Pippi is known for her lying ways, but she also believed in the equality of all repressed girls. There is no problem with her skin colour, all bronzes have the same shine. But sculptor Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe gave African Fearless Girl weaves instead of a flowing ponytail and different facial features.
The original Fearless Girl was part of a marketing campaign to promote advances made by women in corporate US, and if Africa’s version encourages school-going children to brave the very male world of finance, it can only be a good thing.