The subcontracted voice of womxn in art by Dr Thandokuhle S. Mngqibisa

Dr Thandokuhle S. Mngqibisa | July 13th, 2022 | essays | No Comments

Some time ago, PowerFM had a brief discussion about a new rule supposedly instituted by the Cannes film festival. According to reports in various UK newspapers, women were turned away from red carpet events at the Cannes film festival due to their not wearing high heels. They were informed by the Cannes spokesperson that high heels were “obligatory”. Of course, the festival director, Thierry Fremaux, has since denied any such rule being instituted and insists that the spokesperson was misinformed. This is a topic that may need journalistic exploration but it is not the subject of my discussion now. My problem is this: the stand-in host of the breakfast show, Andrea, proceeded to ask men what they think. She then asked the male traffic correspondent what he thinks about the story. At no point did she find it necessary to ask a woman’s opinion. Despite being at the helms of a talk radio show. I suppose the opinion of a woman is obvious. We must all be so homogeneous that we don’t need to be asked. Alternatively, our opinions simply don’t matter. The discussion is always ABOUT women. Not with them. So it must be asked: what is it about being a womxn that has us muted, sitting in the time-out corner of life while we all pretend we have been granted VIP access to the kingdom? What is it about my being womxn that paralyses my tongue and my mind?

Contrary to what most of us expect, art is rife with gender inequalities and irregularities of practice. We expect the artists to be on top of the podium of freedom and yet we often find that they perpetuate, as a microcosm of the general zeitgeist, a world of oppression and cliquism. Art is no exception. Womxn are often expected to reach above and beyond what their male counterparts are even capable of, just to get only a fraction of the recognition. And the best part (read sarcasm) is that womxn themselves also participate in the widening of the gender gap and often internalise patriarchy to dangerous levels, giving men the ammunition to suggest that anything anti-patriarchy is created by a disgruntled faction that can be dismissed. It’s a treacherous world for womxn artists.

It becomes particularly urgent in South Africa where we must balance race, class and access issues with those of evolving gender experiences and attitudes. Generally speaking, we are quite a conservative country. This translates quite efficiently into the status quo. Womxn are often required to do 10 times the normal calibre of work to get a fraction of the recognition. It’s no different in art. Generally, we need to make a concerted effort to make sure that womxn are included, not because of sex but because there are so many people in high places just waiting to limit the access that womxn have. We need to provide the balance.
A big poetry house recently sent 2 poets abroad for a poetry experience and I must’ve seemed petty when I asked about representation when I discovered they were sending two men. These are conversations we need to be having. Openly.

In addition to limited access, there are topics and conversations that womxn often can’t write about without expecting a negative response (regardless of the calibre of the work). How many times have you rolled your eyes at a love or rape poem recited by a womxn poet? And yet we applaud the love poems and rape poems written by men–many of which are really poorly written and performed. In fact, Koleka Putuma makes mention of this in a poem in her collection, Collective Amnesia. OH DEAR GOD, PLEASE! NOT ANOTHER RAPE POEM. The poem doesn’t look at the difference between men saying rape poems and womxn saying rape poems. It speaks to the eye-rolling reflex whenever a rape poem is recited.

“some womxn set their daughters alight to keep their men warm
And some family members would rather describe the smoke than smell like it
”–Koleka Putuma.[1]

However, from observing slams I’ve learned that this is generally the response to womxn who say rape poems. Men are usually received with thunderous applause regardless of the quality of the poem. The masculine voice always takes up space in the experiences of womxn. And womxn are, thus, silenced. In the same way that whiteness takes up space, and the black voice is often silenced.

A US poet, Penelope Solomon, spoke specifically on how common this is in her poem “When men get higher scores for poems about how men shouldn’t rape than my poem about being raped”. She says:

“I am all story that can not be undone, and no possibility for a better ending.
This is the ending I got.
Where I am not the exception to the rule.
Where my rape poem is a confession, not a soapbox”. “What are you asking for when you choose to read that at a slam?…
for women to remember our stories matter,
but less so when they come from us.
Less so when they come with the baggage of narrative,
when they burn out of us.
When they are tangled and desperate,
instead of confident hand-me-downs of wisdom…”

The violent trope of the “angry black womxn” has become a tool adept at dismissing the voices of womxn. And we are all a part of the situation. It becomes important to ask the relevant questions to the relevant people. The opinion of a womxn has been subcontracted repeatedly to men and this silencing is a part of the dangerous path we are treading back towards a time when womxn needed permission from their husbands or fathers in order to open bank accounts. We actually have opinions. If you would venture to ask.

We need to be consistent in checking ourselves and our privilege so that we aren’t inadvertently oppressing the existence of others. Some things are just not for you to say.

[1] Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma 2017

[2] When men get higher scores for poems about how men shouldn’t rape than my poem about being raped by Penelope Solomon

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