Exhibition review: And she was wearing trousers

New multimedia commissions from African artists take from the past and the present.

Arts House is one of the best places in Melbourne to get a glimpse into the city’s vibrant contemporary arts culture. And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines is an indication of what happens when contemporary art meets intersectional feminism curated by Roberta Joy Rich and Naomi Velaphi team up with a group of artists from Southern Africa.

Due to the challenge of programming during a pandemic, this exhibition has made a virtue of necessity with a variety of mixed media video and installation artworks that were able to be prepared remotely and feature the kind of human interactions we were deprived of during a number of lockdowns. Thus the exhibition, featuring eight artworks spread across two rooms focuses on video art, with a twist on the culturally specific heritage of Southern Africa captured by four different artists. 

The video installations riff on traditional themes in a way that makes their mythical status modern. For instance, a five minute video by blk banaana celebrates the unrecognised figures who are responsible for ending apartheid in South Africa. As high as the stars so far unseen is a non-linear tribute to the individuals and ancestors who made this struggle possible and a video that focuses on elemental acts of survival. 

Another work examines ancestry by recontextualising traditional Southern African healing practices. Sethembile Msezane’s 16 minute film uses the metaphor of the pandemic to explore the ways in which healing can be applied holistically, to society as well as to an individual. In showing a small group of children foraging for traditional medicines, Msezane’s film gives an insight into cultural practices that might otherwise be closely guarded.

Read: Book review: Here Goes Nothing, Steve Toltz

The prints adorning Arts House’s windows may appear more familiar. Borrowing a motif of braiding from African hair, these designs by Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti incorporate the display of hands representing freedom, in various poses alluding to the freedom fighter. In this Mutiti borrows from the popular songwriter Brenda Fassie. In fact the links between populist song and high art endure throughout the exhibition with its title taken from a 1950s song by the Zimbabwean singer and icon Dorothy Masuka.

 And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines unites media as well as culture to trawl through history to find the voices of our Southern African ancestors. It is a masterful hymn to cross-cultural craft. 

And she was wearing trousers: a call to our heroines will be exhibited until 6 August 2022 at Arts House, North Melbourne

Curated by Roberta Joy Rich and Naomi Velaphi
Artists: Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Jabu Nadia Newman, blk banaana, Kirsty Marillier, Rara Zulu Tariro Mavondo, Sethembile Msezane 

Free entry

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin