A Mauritanian woman painting a wall

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Photographer Margaret Courtney-Clarke, born and raised in Namibia, understands why people in the West picture Africa as a place of starvation, military coups and disease: These images are usually the only ones they see.

“There is a very beautiful Africa that’s not represented,” Courtney-Clarke said from Bagnaia, a town 40 miles north of Rome where she has lived for six years. “I grew up in a beautiful Africa.”

Throughout her career, Courtney-Clarke has devoted herself to revealing Africa’s other faces to the world. One aspect that has particularly intrigued her is women who have managed to maintain artistic traditions in the face of continuous turmoil created by ongoing social, political and economic challenges.

“The Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions,” a record of the months-long trips Courtney-Clarke made for nearly 20 years in South, West and Northern Africa, is on view at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City’s Harlem, through March 30.

The show offers a selection of more than 100 photographs and 50 objects gathered during Courtney-Clarke’s extended visits to Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. These images have also played an integral role in her trilogy of books on the art of African women: “Ndebele: The Art of an African Tribe,” “African Canvas: The Art of West African Women,” and “Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women.”

The traditional artistic practice of African women includes abstract, freehand mural painting and heavily beaded items of personal adornment by the Ndebele women of South Africa, the overall patterns in house and room painting of West African women, and the painted pottery and intricate weaving of Berber women in North Africa. In many cases, Courtney-Clarke’s photographs depict the artistic process of these women rather than the finished product–applying paint to a wall with brushes and hands, spinning white wool onto a long spindle or painting a tall water jug with burnt red pigment.

Looking for Pockets of Africa Untouched by Western Culture

For her exploration, Courtney-Clarke chose not to focus on African cities, where Western habits and styles have replaced the local culture. Rather, she traveled to remote rural communities where traditional life had continued, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter for generations.

“These are places that foreigners don’t get to and governments don’t know about in their own countries,” she said. Courtney-Clarke often spent a month in a village until, as she put it, she became “like a sister to them,” and brought out her camera. “These are not photos I took from a car window with a telephoto lens,” she said.

Berber women in Northern Africa, being Muslim, are seldom permitted to show their faces, and many appear in the shadows of these photographs. But Courtney-Clarke eventually earned the trust of her subjects and captured the images she wanted, “with the permission of a husband or brother,” she explained.

Many of the objects in the show, Courtney-Clarke said, were put to good use.

“The pots were my dining utensils, the gourds my food bowls,” she noted. Especially remarkable among the decorative items are the Ndebele “linga koba,” or “long tears”–beaded, patterned bands that hang from each side of the head to the floor. Linga koba are worn by mothers when their sons have been initiated into manhood and represent the sadness at losing a boy and happiness at gaining a man.

Introducing Ndebele Art to U.S. Audiences

Photos from a 1992 issue of Town and Country Magazine of Ethiopian-born model Iman in eveningwear with Ndebele artists Francina Ndimande and her daughter Angelina strike a jarring note. But any reading of potential exploitation dissipates once the whole story is revealed: Courtney-Clarke proposed the idea of a photo essay to Town and Country on the Ndebele as a way to gain greater exposure for their artistry.

“South Africa was still under apartheid,” she said. “The idea was to introduce the world to Ndebele art, which was so extraordinary. The only way was to splash it in a magazine.”

And splash it did: Town and Country put the story on its cover, creating unprecedented recognition for Ndebele art and culture. Since then, Francina and Angelina have had exhibitions and received commissions from around the world. They came to New York with two of their students when “The Art of African Women” opened last October and painted a commissioned mural at the Schomburg.

In 1996, Courtney-Clarke founded the Ndebele Foundation, and in 2001, the Ndebele Foundation Cultural Centre for Women and Children opened in Mabhoko, South Africa. Its mission is to help teach and train rural women and children–both boys and girls–to support themselves financially through their art.

“We want to stop migration to the cities, where traditions and culture breaks down, not to mention the sprawling ghettos where they are forced to live,” Courtney-Clarke said. “It would be wonderful to create half a dozen foundations in all the areas where I took pictures for my book.”

“The profound beauty of so much of this work is remarkable,” said Deborah Mack, an anthropologist and museum consultant based in Savannah, Ga., who helped curate the show. She’s not the only one to notice–a display case in the exhibit holds a piece of fabric, printed with a pattern taken from Ndebele artist Johanna Mahlangu’s home as seen in a photograph by Courtney-Clarke. The pattern was used without the permission of either woman, and Mahlangu received no compensation. The only recognized contributor to the fabric is Scotchgard, whose trademark stamp is printed along one edge, protecting the interests of 3M.

Michelle Falkenstein is a freelance writer in New York who covers the arts.

For more information:

The Schomburg Library–Current Exhibitions
The Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions:

National Museum of African Art: