Many major cities in Africa are replete with monuments commemorating her tragic colonial history and the male power—both destructive and redemptive--at the heart of it all. Statues of white imperialists and black liberationists exclude women change-makers from being celebrated in our public spaces, persisting the myth that women are passive contributors to history and unworthy of recognition.
When the multidisciplinary artist Sethembile Msezane moved to Cape Town in the early 2010s, she experienced a personal epiphany that would shape her art and message. Witnessing the many statues of male imperialists and nationalists in Cape Town’s public squares and streets exposed what had been hiding in plain sight: male history is celebrated through public commemoration while that of women, especially black women, is stowed out of sight.
These statues — staring condescendingly at her in public spaces —imposed on her a forlornness deriving from a feeling of being ejected, disadvantaged, and invisible. Where was the woman’s place in public space? Where were south Africa’s matriarchs to look reassuringly on their girls walking by and remind them that they too are leaders?
To Sethembile, the all-male, mostly white, and Africaan statues emphasized the social, gender, and racial divide stemming from years of colonization, apartheid, and the suppression of African and women’s voices through poverty and dispossession, poor access to education, and systemic barriers to accessing resources and platforms with which to amplify their voices.
Sethembile saw — as if with a fresh vision — a South Africa that had repressed black history and the history and representation of women. This awareness conjured her mission to reimagine a world where women felt visible, represented, and powerful. Here, women could visualize themselves in its public spaces both literally and metaphorically.
When only the history and leadership of men are honored in public spaces, it might send one of two messages: that women served merely as passive victims of the circumstances into which men intervened and rescued them, or that women actively created solutions, only to have their contribution omitted in favor of that of men.
Barring the queens of Europe and a few other female heads of states, the exclusion of women in public spaces relating to celebration and commemoration is not merely a South African problem: it is a global one.
In every continent, country, and chiefdom, women are overworked, underpaid, underrepresented, and passed over. In short, if you wish to find the men who made history, look in the public spaces. For the women who made history, however, look to the history books, and only if they are lucky.
To acquiesce my mounting discouragement at these female exclusions, a friend pointed me to the grand Taj Mahal, the largest monument in a public space build to a woman in the ancient world and still unparalleled today.
Although contemplating its grandeur in the name of womanhood was comforting for one glorious moment, closer scrutiny unveiled the truth we often miss in our elevation of the Taj Mahal’s romantic significance. For the mausoleum does not exist to document Mumtaz Mahal’s accomplishments or leadership as Empress, but to tell the world that the Emperor loved her deeply and extravagantly.
Consequently, it summons us to acknowledge the expertise of male architects and builders, the wealth, devotion, and grief of the Emperor while neglecting to include the vital detail that the Empress had died of post-partum hemorrhage while giving birth to her 14th child, aged 38 years.
While I cannot deny the love and honor that went into the inception and construction of the Taj Mal, I cannot receive it as a triumph to women or herstory.
Moreover, if the best representation of women in public spaces we can cling to is an ancient tomb in memory of a mother who bled to death in childbirth, perhaps Sethembile has a right to her disappointment and outrage.
Besides dismissing women’s contribution, this omission pushes them out of the public square where ideas are shared and progress is incubated and birthed. By presenting public spaces as chiefly a male domain, young girls and women are robbed of feminine role models who might inspire them to aspire to social-economic and political leadership.
This omission inadvertently informs girls who they are not, who they cannot be, or where they may not lead. It may also crush any leadership ambition budding in their young minds because the exclusively male commemorative art may project the lie that only males excel in leadership.
It is what Sethembile Msezane decided to tackle head-on using art as a medium to send a powerful message: women belong in our public spaces too.
Inserting black women into public spaces for her means that women are not victims but capable change activators who formulate the freedoms and recognition that are their rightful dues.
Sethembile’s use of live statues is unique in that it stands for the fluidity and transiency of history and history-makers. It also invites complex community participation that dissolves the myth that anyone could make history alone.
By embodying different aspects of historical and cultural perceptions, stereotypes, and misrepresentations, Sethembile has used art to critique culture, inform it, question traditions, erase colonial history, celebrate black women, and protest sexual violence.
For instance, when the statue of Cecil Rhodes — the white supremacist and colonist who sought to keep Africans in their proper place and saw their self-determination as a humiliation to white intelligence — was toppled in 2015, Sethembile performed beside it as a statue of Chepungu. Chepungu is one of the soapstone birds looted by Cecil Rhodes from the prosperous kingdom of Great Zimbabwe before it was renamed Northern Rhodesia after Rhodes.
Through her performance as a live statue, the artist sought to present femininity and the black female body as worthy of commemoration, redeeming the history of its plunder and degradation by colonialism and slavery.
Hers was a triumphant statement that where the oppressor of black femininity had stood proud, the black woman was rising alive, strong, undeterred, ready to take flight. She had reclaimed her place and her dignity.
Additionally, when two young women got assaulted at a taxi rank for wearing short skirts, Sethembile embodied her great-grandmother and performed as a live statue in Freedom Square in Langa, close to the very taxi rank where the assault occurred, bare-breasted.
Her message was clear: the African women of pre-colonial times like her great grand-mother roamed their land bare-breasted. They were respected and protected so that whatever body parts were exposed did not deem them as sexual prey. Why, then, did modernity give men license to derogatively comment on or explore women’s bodies without consent on account of their choice of clothes?
Finding her power and her voice through art, Sethembile refused to recoil in the fear imposed on women by the men who perpetrate sexual violence. Instead, she took a stand against their entitlement and deplorable liberties with the bodies of women.
She shook off the victimhood and raised herself into a powerful movement of one, inserting a lost cultural history to inform the present and remind black men of their lost respect for themselves, their mothers, sisters, and wives.
Her bare-breasted performance reminded the African girls and women in her audience of a simple truth about bodily expression through dress: it was not the women who had changed, but the men, and with this change they attempted to control what women wore. What’s worse, they reverted to sexual assaults as punishment for the women whose sense of freedom empowered them against adhering to the stringent dress codes imposed on them by male strangers.
These themes further reinforce the pervasive belief that black women do not belong in public spaces — whether as commemorated historical figures or as daily partners — unless they observe specific rules of participation enforced by men, patriarchal beliefs, or redundant traditions.
Since it is impossible to build a family or nation without the illustrious participation of women, commemorating women’s leadership in public spaces is a crucial issue of gender inclusion. It can empower the women leaders of today and inspire those of tomorrow.
Making public spaces safe for women is critical to female leadership because women cannot be free to lead and innovate if they feel unsafe in the spaces they share with men.
With public safety, we affirm that women have a right to be present; by enacting public art in their honor, we acknowledge their power and contribution. Both are lacking, and both are needed.