For the second edition of our essay series at Art Düsseldorf Magazine, we asked a selection of writers to investigate issues related to Diversity in the Art World. This essay by Mwinji Siame, a Lusaka, Zambia-based journalist, focuses on how digitization can make art more accessible to marginalized communities all around the world.
In an industry entangled in patriarchal and colonial worldviews, the Women’s History Museum Zambia (WHMZ) represents a major step forward. The stories of both African women and women of African descent are diverse, yet the role they’ve played as societal leaders is very rarely reflected in the mainstream art world. With the rich diversity of its programming, including the new “Shared Histories” program, the WHMZ is making major strides in changing this narrative through an embrace of the internet. Carried out in collaboration with various Swedish museums, “Shared Histories” focuses on the “digital repatriation” of various objects misappropriated during colonialism, with many objects playing a significant role in the everyday lives of women.
The mission, according to WHMZ co-founder Samba Yonga, is to “take this information to young people so that they can interact with it, they can utilize it, and they can consume it.” It’s a noble goal that not only presents a blueprint for creating a more diverse art world but also helps to bring a spotlight to Zambia. Although the country is small in size and population, Zambia has an indubitably interesting and diverse history where women have played a central role in shaping culture. Women have wielded great influence in their communities as political activists, entrepreneurs, conservationists, spiritual leaders, and leaders of royal establishments. In my own community, as part of the Namwanga tribe, both Nakambas (women) and Siames (men) are eligible for traditional leadership positions as descendants of the royal clan. Still, Namwanga people in northern Zambia have only been led by a woman since the drawing of borders.
The women who play a central leadership role in Zambia have always been artists. They create and utilize objects as works of art that can be used in everyday life, while also making art with profound significance in spiritual life. In Namwanga culture, for example, objects like a chief’s crown are an important part of preserving spiritual power, while in Bemba culture, art has been vital for sharing and utilizing African Indigenous knowledge systems for the development of the individual. The preservation of this art is key to ensuring that economic and social development continues, and by using the internet, the WHMZ is doing so in a way that is accessible.
This is a much-needed departure from how museums and galleries have treated the historical art created by African women. Enclosed in glass cases within large, sterile rooms, artworks and “artifacts” are presented as things of the past. If they are African objects, the art is often labeled as “primitive” or “useless,” only meaningful as curiosities to reinforce the “othering” of the non-hegemonic identities as African women. In traditional museums and galleries, historical African art created by women is divorced from its creators and from the diversity of experiences and humanity within each piece. At the WHMZ, this dehumanizing model is challenged by delving into the subjective experiences of the women who would have made and used these objects via visual podcasts, exhibits, and panel discussions.
The importance of creative women in the local culture is also reflected in the leadership of the museum. The co-founders are Ba [a Zambian honorific for an older or established person] Mulenga Kapwepwe and Samba Yonga. These women are not just cultural preservationists and historians; they are artists and creators who grew up in political families. It’s these childhood experiences that may have informed their decisive action to ensure that women’s roles in political life are recorded. Yonga experienced the intrigues of growing up with a parent in foreign service, while Mulenga Kapwepwe, born a generation or two before Yonga, is the daughter of activist Salome Kapwepwe and Zambia’s visionary second post-independence Vice President Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe.
Customary leadership in Zambian culture generally involves the custodianship of stable and productive social relationships, resistance to injustice, and ensuring cohesion between people and the environment. All of these elements have been present in the work of the museum, especially through its digital offerings. As the pandemic forced us into our homes, museums, galleries, and historical sites began to make their displays available through digital platforms. The accessibility has opened up conversations about why other museums and galleries have not made the same efforts to open up the experience to less able-bodied or financially-limited patrons. It has also opened up conversations about which forgotten histories can be made more visible because of these popular platforms.
The museum’s “Shared Histories” project serves as an example of how digitization can allow art to be accessible to marginalized communities all around the world. Removing the barriers to engaging with the art ensures that a diversity of people, particularly African and other historically invisibilized communities, can be included in discourse about it. Moreover, digital collaborations like “Shared Histories” allow for artists from all communities — irrespective of how privileged they are or are not — to take lessons and inspiration from one another’s cultures. When asked about the foundation of the WHMZ, Kapwepwe succinctly summed up the need to take action, saying: “If not you, then who?” Both Kapwepwe and Yonga have shown that it is necessary for African women to take ownership of sharing and preserving our own stories. Not just for ourselves but for future generations and for all communities. This is what a feminist museum does.