Winning work: Maral Bolouri’s installation, Mothers and Others
Winning work: Maral Bolouri’s installation, Mothers and Others

African proverbs about women form the subject of the work of this year’s Absa L’Atelier art competition winner, Maral Bolouri, whose installation is titled Mothers and Others.

Suspended from several neatly ordered rows of cowbells are negative proverbs: "A woman is always a burden, whether she is married or stays at her parents’ house"; "A woman and an invalid are the same thing"; "Women have no upright words, only crooked ones".

Below the cowbells is a small altar with several extinguished candles. It contains positive proverbs about women (there are just four).

Bolouri says: "Most of the proverbs are negative; they objectify women; they’re misogynist. Women are compared with animals and they’re portrayed as imbeciles and as not having any agency. The smaller portion, which is positive, is about motherhood…. That is the only space where women are perceived as valuable human beings."

Bolouri has a master’s degree in international contemporary art & design practice and a bachelor’s in painting from the Tehran University of Art. She has made Kenya her home since 2012. Her past exhibitions — for example, one titled Sarnevesht — have similarly drawn on text and visual elements from Iran to interrogate stereotypes around men and women.

In Kenya, she says, "the law doesn’t separate men and women much. It’s the customary culture and traditions that sometimes, though not always, bring women down. Things such as female genital mutilation and marrying girls off at a very young age — things that may not be that widespread, but need to be addressed…. That’s why it’s important to talk about something like proverbs. What is one thing that we use every day, [with which] we reinforce oppression? A proverb."

Along with her research partner, Bolouri has collected sayings from across the continent, most of them still in use. She notes that "this is not only about Africa. English and Dutch [and so on] have exactly the same negative proverbs about women; it’s just that they have shelved them because it’s not appropriate to use them any more".

The work includes a board on which members of the public can write their own sayings — essentially pointing to the need for people to forge new proverbs, to reflect a fairer place for women in society.

Personal and private

There’s a peculiar synergy between Bolouri’s work and that of Banele Khoza, the winner of this year’s L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award. Originally from Swaziland, Khoza has a diploma in fine art from the Tshwane University of Technology. He has twice been a finalist in the L’Atelier competition.

Khoza touches on similar themes to Bolouri, albeit from a different perspective and using vastly different media. Both consider gender stereotypes; both speak of "boxes". Khoza’s work Note Making, a series of digital drawings printed with an ink-jet printer, "questions representations of what it is to be a male in SA and in a broader context", his artist statement reads.

"Male nudity and vulnerability [still are not] vastly portrayed in media today. With this body of work, I have allowed myself to be vulnerable by expressing my thoughts and feelings, which are easily decipherable to a patient eye."

Personal reflection: Banele Khoza’s award-winning Note Making explores representations of masculinity
Personal reflection: Banele Khoza’s award-winning Note Making explores representations of masculinity

Housing the bells and proverbs is a giant stool, a symbol of containment. "If I could have made it as a box, maybe I would have," says Bolouri, "but I wanted it to be open for people to interact with."

The cowbells symbolise the commodification of women — "knowing your place" — just as the bell tells the cattle owner where his livestock are wandering. But they also refer to voice — to speaking out and drawing attention to things that are wrong. And, of course, to the aspects of traditional culture in which such sentiments may be deeply embedded and protected by dint of their cultural status.

"In Kenya, whenever you complain about something, we say: ‘It’s our culture,’" says Bolouri. "But I think it’s important to break norms, to accept that maybe a tiny bit of our culture needs questioning."

Whereas Bolouri looks outward, considering how women are described, Khoza digs into his own psyche and experiences to question the confines of masculinity. Where Bolouri looks into linguistic fragments buried in traditional culture, Khoza has all the marks of the tech-addicted millennial: "I got this [tablet], it replaced my diary because I could use it anywhere. I’m working between two mediums on the app … though I still keep a diary. It shows how dependant we are on technology right now, I travel with three devices every day; when I wake up, the first thing I look at is my phone."

Khoza speaks of how people are "groomed in a blue or pink sector".

He says: "I’ve struggled from when I was a child. I’d try to play with girls and they’d chase me off [saying]: ‘Why are you playing with girls?’ And then I’d try to immerse myself [in the company of] boys and they were, like: ‘You don’t fit in.’ So, trying to find myself in a world where everything is boxed, there are blues and pinks, that’s what I tried to examine with the work."

Whereas Bolouri’s text is drawn from the outside world, Khoza’s is personal. He uses lines from his journal, having kept a diary since childhood. ("That was also an issue: ‘Why do you keep a diary? Boys don’t keep diaries.’")

He tackles uncomfortably intimate subjects, and exhibits his most private thoughts (albeit with a layer of protection: though he says everything is easily discernible to a patient eye, it would at times take a very patient eye to decipher some of his handwriting).

About Lonely Nights, the title of a past exhibition, for example, he says: "Loneliness is such a taboo — you can’t really confess to somebody, ‘I’m lonely’. And it’s the same with masculinity now … the complexities of it, and how it’s changing with the new generation of kids … sometimes I write stuff that I forget will end up in public. [But] it becomes a life’s-purpose thing, to help others instead of containing it within myself. So I’m happy to share almost everything."

For Khoza, social media seems to be changing things for the better. "It’s exciting, because you can be your true self instead of trying to hide and be something," he says. "It’s the same with clothes: we wear a certain type of clothes to hide ourselves or to perform a certain way. Or to perform gender itself. Things are changing — with social media and being connected online, people see that it’s not just the one way of life … parents start to accept a bit, or sometimes not: they worry about society, instead of you as a child. But I think the more you express it, and as they see you being yourself — and doing well being yourself — the more they accept it."

This has been a good year for the Absa L’Atelier, judging by the quality of the finalists. The works of Bolouri and Khoza alone give some indication of the range of media on show. The fact that gender comes to the fore in the works of both shows that it is still a hugely pressing and painful subject.

What is particularly exciting, now that the L’Atelier finalists are being drawn from 10 African states, is that the competition becomes a lively entry point for engaging with our neighbours about the issues that concern them, and how these are the same or different to ours; how culture varies (or doesn’t — as Ghanaian finalist Bright Ackwerh says: "Pop culture is our culture now"); and the extent to which social media is likely to affect all of this.

It really feels as if we’re living on the same continent.

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