Women are treated like cattle. That is the implied message behind Maral Bolouri’s award-winning cowbell installation at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg.

Mothers and Others is a simple wooden structure from which a group of cowbells are suspended. Tied to each is a popular proverb, affirming women’s inferiority.

"I was looking for ideas that reinforce oppression of women. I did a study of proverbs relating to women in Africa and … 90% are negative. The only positive ones are to do with women being mothers," says Bolouri, winner of the 2017 Absa L’Atelier award.

Echoing how mother figures are the only women who are revered, her installation includes an altar with candles.

"When women are only valued as human when they reproduce, it affirms this idea of them as objects. We need to bring about change and think differently," says the Kenyan.

Female artists in Africa are demanding change. This is a recurring theme at the exhibition of the art of the 10 finalists for the Absa L’Atelier award, which took place in Johannesburg last week.

Since this annual art award, produced in conjunction with the South African National Association for the Visual Arts, invited entries from other African countries and appointed judges from outside SA, it has become a barometer of the social and artistic issues driving young people (there is a 35-year age limit) on the continent.

L’Atelier merit award winner Priscilla Kennedy from Ghana examined how Islamic traditions of dress are used to control women’s bodies. She communicated this through the figures of semi-naked women in different states of undress, embroidered on to scarves used to cover them up.

"I take a jab at the idea of women as tools of seduction. It is always the same in Africa, women are less dignified and that is what I am trying to portray," she says.

Half the finalists this year were women — a rarity in art awards. The judges were also mostly women: CCA Lagos director Bisi Silva was the main adjudicator with Ernestine White, Siona O’Connell and Corrine Loisel assisting.

Also on the team was Jaco van Schalkwyk, the South African artist commissioned to make the 2017 award.

References to the female body or depictions of it dominated entries. There was a chicken wire and twine sculpture of a female form by Zambian Nukwase Tembo; a staged photograph by Aaron Mulenga, also from Zambia, portraying the holy trinity as female characters; and Naomi Doras’s pop art-ish work subverting advertising norms in Cooking Woman.

Manyatsa Monyamane from Pretoria presented a striking image of a glamorous old woman, Koko Meikie, and also exhibited a photograph of a man. She was more interested in the age of her subjects than their gender.

"I believe our elders are encyclopedias and we forget that. I wanted to document them, celebrate them and show their strength. Elders still talk about changes they still want to see in the community; they are still active today," she says.

Categorising, sorting and collecting stories was a driving focus behind Ciara Struwig’s off-beat artwork — a book of photographs of the residue of other artists’ art, such as beads, pencil sharpenings and tampons used to soak up paint.

Acknowledgment and recognition is the lifeblood of young artists. It gives them the confidence to continue

The old sandwich crust that Wilhelmina Nell presented in her work, entitled No Evidence of a Struggle, was not directly related to gender issues, though in her motivation, she drew attention to the ways in which she felt pressured to "behave well" and always do the right thing. Perhaps she experienced this more acutely as a woman?

Banele Khoza kept the gender theme afloat with a collection of sketches in his characteristic illustrative style dealing with male sexuality.

He received a significant boost to his career when he won the Gerard Sekoto Award, which will afford him a residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris.

As with all the winners of Absa L’Atelier awards, Khoza will enjoy an exhibition on his return and extended support from the Absa Gallery, where the programme is typically dominated by past winners.

Acknowledgment and recognition is the lifeblood of young artists. It gives them the confidence to continue.

As overall winner Bolouri will receive R225,000 and a six-month residency at the Cite Internationale des Art as well as a dedicated exhibition when she returns.

• The Absa L’Atelier exhibition is at the Absa Gallery, corner Main and Polly Street, Johannesburg until October 27.

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