By Andrew Mulenga
There seems to be something happening among a handful of artists on the Zambian art scene. An all-female, revolution-like conscious movement albeit one without a transcribed manifesto. Working separately two young artists have taken it upon themselves to defend their femininity by questioning what they observe as force-fed, western standards of beauty.
|Status Quo, 2016, collage by Nukwase Tembo|
Through their work, Nukwase Tembo and Mulenga Mulenga, 28 and 29 years-old respectively are championing an interrogation of generally accepted notions of attractiveness, a campaign that they hope will remind Zambian, and by extension, African women to regain confidence in their unsullied beauty. A beauty they believe, whose aesthetic has been hijacked as it is now dictated by the modelling industry and mass media.
Both Lusaka-based artists recently had their work selected for the finals of the 2016 Barclays L'Atelier, one of Africa’s most prestigious art competitions that targets visual artists aged 21 to 35. It is Tembo’s piece entitled Status Quo that got her nominated, whereas Mulenga had a double entry with her works entitled Self-portrait and Possessed by disguise respectively.
“My work is addressing the status quo that the majority of black women follow in order for us to fit into the standards of beauty that have been set for us. We have been taught to disregard many things that make us who we are -- beautiful black women -- and have instead taken up the Eurocentric idea of what beauty should be. I feel that this has contributed to the escalating amount of self-hate that is being practiced by the black race,” explains Tembo.
The focal point of her piece is a slender catwalk model strutting on stage in front of an audience, but what is peculiar about her is the fact that while she is black, she appears to have removed her head, carrying it in one hand replacing it with a sniggering white one, the audience too – individually cut characters from magazines – also appears all white.
Tembo’s image subtly camouflages several issues, on the one hand it can be read as a critique of the international fashion and modelling industries along with their consumers and audiences that often demand certain skin, body, and racial types and on the other hand it can also be interpreted as a parody of predominantly Eurocentric social behaviours that have steadily been globalized through mass media.
Just like Tembo, Mulenga argues that her current body of work questions and investigates female identity and heritage in post-colonial Zambia while exploring her personal interactions with social aesthetics. Her work Possessed by disguise addresses similar issues as that of Tembo’s. It is a mixed media painting that depicts a masked figure as its main focal point and the character has actual hair extensions meticulously woven into the canvas. With this work Mulenga alludes to notions of lost identity and a devotion to superficial beauty.
|Possessed by disguise, 2016 mixed media by Mulenga Mulenga|
“The worst form of deception is that of self, black women should reclaim their identity. This work portrays masks and wigs as metaphors for the deception of cultural identity. Black hair is camouflaged in the Zambian society today,” argues Mulenga. “By trying to fit in with mainstream western society, three quarters of (Zambian) women are covered in hair extensions. We have become shadows of a forgotten culture without valuing our rich history of hair grooming”
She says she draws inspiration from her personal experience as an African woman with natural hair, living in a society which castigates its own identity and is influenced by predominantly Euro-Americans and Asian standards of beauty.
“I’m questioning what makes us black women forgo nurturing our hair to build an archive of identity and yet go on exposing ourselves to synthetic and western styled hair. How can I wear my black curly hair and be accepted as a modern and informed woman without being entangled by wigs? What happened to narratives of black hair nurturing and patterns,” she explains.
Her painting entitled Self Portrait directly addresses these observations. It features a young lady with a 1970s style afro with a comb sticking out of it, the hair is in fact real human hair collected by the artist, hanging from the subject’s hand are, synthetic hair extensions. The piece continues the conversation that encourages the rejection of synthetic and human hair extensions, the woman in the painting can be regarded as someone discarding these wigs opting for her own natural hair. Mulenga clearly thought outside the box on this work and shares its production process.
|Self portrait, 2016 mixed media by Mulenga Mulenga|
“I talked to the owner of a hair salon to keep the hair that they cut from the women who visit; the process began in August 2015. To me the material (black hair) is playing an important role, I ask what it means to be carriers of this hair. I am interested in the history that it holds. My research on this topic is still going on, this work is just the beginning of many more to come,” explains Mulenga.
Mulenga and Tembo both raise very interesting arguments as they question generally accepted standards of beauty among African women and in broader terms question the issue of cultural hegemony, the philosophical concept that argues that a culture, with an authoritarian standing, can exert disproportionate influence manipulating how other cultures ought to behave, what they are supposed to consume, what they are supposed to believe, how they are supposed to run their economies and how they are supposed to govern themselves.
Both skin bleaching and hair modification remains popular among African women, who may not fully be aware that they support a multi-million dollar industry. In fact in 2015a popular Afrocentric beauty magazine Madam Noir reported that Africa was the prime market for Indian hair and was estimated to be worth $6 billion a year and rising. However, as much as the blame of influence with regards the straight hair look is heaped on Euro-America, much of the human hair supplied as extensions does not come from Europe or the United States. Perhaps the ever popular Brazilian and Indian soap operas that are household names in Zambia may have a role in the influence to a certain degree.
A brief visit around Lusaka’s Northmead market, one of the Zambian capitals most popular beauty bazaars featuring dozens of small hair salons will reveal that Peruvian, Brazilian and Indian hair are the most prized hair extensions. A 12 inch ball of 100% Indian Virgin Remy hair for instance can cost up to K1, 500 (one thousand five hundred kwacha) and depending on the hairstyle, trendy Lusaka ladies are known to splurge on up to three balls per head, which can amount to K4, 500 (four thousand five hundred kwacha), just over US$ 400 and way over the Zambian general workers’ (category one) minimum wage for receptionists and clerks which is about K1, 100 (one thousand one hundred).
Notwithstanding, many within this workers category are known to don these expensive wigs which also raises concerns as to whether there is now a culture in Zambia that encourages ladies to live beyond their means in order to either keep up appearances, boost self-esteem or indeed look attractive to the opposite sex. Nevertheless the issue of why ladies prefer to wear hair that once belonged to someone else without batting an eyelid over whom the hair was extracted from is perhaps a debate for the hair salons and one that must perhaps be avoided a male writer commenting from a comfortable point of ignorance.
All the same it would be exciting if Tembo and Mulenga could perhaps collaborate and work on a full scale exhibition with more works that argue their worthy cause.