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Livi laBomake – Women’s Voices: A Yebo ArtReach Project in Swaziland
Yesterday I took a kombi to Swaziland National Museum in Lobamba to see the Women’s Voices exhibit. Organized by Aleta Armstrong, owner of Yebo Gallery, the exhibit was a combination of creativity and community women’s voices. “I invited rural women with no previous art training to take part. The idea was to tap into their creativity and also explore issues that were important to them,” Aleta explained. She noted that 80 percent of the artwork’s listed price would go to the artist and 20 percent would go to her non-profit organization ArtReach for follow-up classes.
Swaziland, a patriarchal society, does not usually have much space for women’s voices and around 20 women from all regions of the country eagerly embraced Aleta’s initiative.
Walking through the show, I was struck by the vibrant colours and raw talent.
A call for self-love and sisterhood were common themes –lots of pictures of flowers and upraised hands–but the strongest works were anguished cries against inequality and abuse.
Phumaphi Dlamini’s “The Left Hand” was of a donkey with a woman’s head, crying. Below was inscribed, “Why thank me for what I have done for the family? I am a donkey, the damned left hand.” Thabsile Vilane’s “Hope” also showed a woman crying. “Rocks of oppression weigh on my shoulders, tears fill my stomach but doves of hope set me free,” said her written description.
Zanele Buthelezi had two canvases lined up. The first was of a tortoise with a human foot on top of it. “Women are like trapped tortoises,” she explained. Next to it was a painting of a cabbage. “Men are like cabbages. They sit in the fields and do nothing,” she said.
Many powerful pieces were responding to the horrendous amount of abuse that women and girls suffer in Swaziland–a report by Unicef in 2007 found that one in three women have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Dumsile Mthupha’s stark red canvas shone with a single item, a cleaver. It was titled “Cut off the rapist’s penis.”
My two favorites were by Rose Mamba and Nonzwakezi Dlamini. Mamba’s image was a horned woman on a blood red background. “I am not a cow and I am not for sale. My love is not for sale. My hand in marriage is not for sale. I have no price tag. I will not love you because you paid for me,” read her description. Mamba was responding to the Swazi traditional marriage, where the groom pays the bride’s parents a dowry called Lobola, comprising a negotiated number of cows. Once the cows are paid, the woman is often treated as chattel with no voice or rights within the household.
Tapping into the inner strength that so many Swazi women, despite difficult home situations, Nonzwakezi Dlamini’s painting was of a shimmering woman holding a lamb and simply titled “Powerful Woman.”
The Swazi National Museum is located next door to the Swazi Parliament building. One can only hope that some of those ministers (almost all male) take in the exhibit and understand that it is time to address the concerns of half of their constituents and make Swaziland a safer and more equitable nation.