Special Reports

The long road to dethroning patriarchy

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine

Women and their place in the arts.

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine.

“If you flick through the design history books, you’ll notice that pretty much all the ‘great designers’ have something in common. They’re all men,” wrote British design critic Alice Rawsthorn. 

In An Assessment of the Visual Arts in South Africa, a research report conducted by the Human Science Research Council, University of the Witwatersrand, African Micro-Economic Research Umbrella, and Thompson Research Services, for the department of arts and culture in 2010, it states: “Artists constitute the core human resource that sustains the sector, generating the artworks around which the activities of the rest of the sector largely revolve. It is estimated that there are in the region of 5 500 artists in South Africa … the majority (58%) of practicing artists are white, with a particularly poor representation of black women artists (comprising just 12% of the total population of artists based on the survey)”. 

Herein lies the problem. When you observe the South African design space there is a distinct lack of women. Who dominates art and creative directorship roles? Who heads up architectural firms? Who is predominately invited to speak at leading design symposiums? 

Sweden came up with their own solution to highlight the contribution women have made in the industry. The design duo Hjärta Smärta identified the significant lack of female design role models at the tips of tongues and created an online project called “Hall of Femmes” highlighting female designers and art directors who have influenced creative culture. A series of books — four volumes in total honouring these leading women — was the result of a journey they undertook to New York to interview some of these design icons.

On South African shores, names such as Nkhensani Nkosi, Marianne Fassler, Palesa Mokubung among other pioneering female designers, have shaped and challenged the contemporary notions of the local fashion design aesthetic. In our local art world, Mary Sibande, Frances Goodman and activist Zanele Muholi come to mind. They continue to provoke and evoke critical thinking and self-reflection when it comes to social conditioning and gender and gender-related issues. And there are many others. MoMa’s Designing Modern Women curator Juliet Kinchin’s view of modern design goes far beyond being simply an aesthetic consideration. It’s the idea that design is a “way of thinking, a way of working, and a way of living”. That’s where women have a pivotal role to play.

Tshego Moiloa of Moiloa Office of Architecture + Design was the lead designer behind the world-class FNB Stadium at Nasrec, Johannesburg. She has been quoted as saying she wants to start a foundation to give academic and financial support to young women who want to enter the architectural sphere. 

A few kilometres down the road, a new sleek and modern building housing the bistro Thrive Café designed by recent Wits graduate Valentina Flora Angelucci has dramatically changed the face of the historically famous Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Her name is yet to surface in Google searches.

And then there is South African researcher Dr Sonnet Ehlers who designed Rape-aXe, the female condom with teeth better known as the anti-rape condom. The rape of women and children has increased exponentially and women, she thought, have the right to ostensibly arm themselves against their would-be attackers. And in causing them great discomfort, the device, which needs to be surgically removed, thereafter, will result in the positive identification of the attacker.

Understanding modern design, as linked to function and not just form, underpins the critical process that informed deciding which projects would be included as part of the World Design Capital Cape Town 2014 programme. 


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