“Bringing people together, inspiring, soothing and sharing: these are the powers of art, the importance of which has been made emphatically obvious during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. With hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by the virus and billions more either in lockdown or battling the pandemic on the front lines, this World Art Day is a timely reminder that art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis.” ~ Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO

World Art Day is celebrated on 15 April in honour of the artist Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. He is seen as a symbol of peace, freedom of expression and brotherhood. The day was declared by the International Association of Art (IAA), a partner of Unesco, to promote awareness about fine arts worldwide and was first celebrated in 2012. 

World Art Day is a celebration to promote the development, diffusion and enjoyment of art. Some of the most popular types of art include painting, sculpting, drawing, photography and calligraphy. Other art forms also include architecture, fashion design, wood crafts and jewellery design. Along with visual arts, there are also performing arts, which include dance, theatre and music. On this day we celebrate it all, helping reinforce the links between artistic creations and society to encourage awareness of the diversity of artistic expressions and highlight the contribution of artists to sustainable development. As long as humans have been able to use their hands, they have created art to represent themselves. From cave paintings to ceilings of chapels, artistic expressions can tell us a lot about the lives of the people who created them. 

Between 70 – 80% of photography students around the world are women, yet they account for only about 15% of professional photographers. Women have been underrepresented and overlooked throughout the history of photography, but recently there has been a greater acknowledgement of their contributions to photography. Here are a few South African female photographers from a few years back:

Constance Stuart Larrabee

Constance Stuart Larrabee was born in England in 1914 and came to South Africa with her parents when she was three months old. Her interest in photography began in 1924 when she got a Kodak Box Brownie for her birthday. She graduated from Pretoria High School in 1933 where she was one of the first South African women to study photography abroad. When she returned in 1936 she opened her own studio, the Constance Stuart Portrait Studio in Pretoria. Here she photographed leading statesmen, generals, artists, writers, society and theatrical personalities of the time. In 1953 she became an American citizen and had a photographic exhibition called Tribal Women of South Africa, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

In 1985 three of her images from World War II were included in The Indelible Image: Photographs of War 1846 to the Present at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York; the Rice Museum in Houston, Texas; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. In 1986 she was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts at the Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Two years later she had another solo exhibition called African Profile at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.

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Jo Ractliffe

Jo Ractliffe is a documentary photographer who captures the traces of violence, displacement and struggle in a landscape. The images evoke memory and history and the untold stories of the aftermath of conflict. She was born in 1961 in Cape Town and completed her BAFA and MFA degrees at the University of Cape Town. Ractliffe uses a wide range of photographic and art practices, including snapshot, documentary, forensic and studio photography, as well as installation video and projections. Her favourite medium is analogue black and white images that capture a reality bordering on the mysterious, which the artist emphasizes in her printing techniques. Photographic and art education has been a priority for Ractliffe. She lectured and conducted workshops at private and public institutions throughout South Africa and abroad including the Salzburg Summer Academy in Austria. Ractliffe is one of the founding members and curator of the Joubert Park Project, a socially directed public art initiative located in the inner city of Johannesburg (2000/01). 

In 2015 Ractliffe was one of the selected few to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Aftermath of Conflict: Jo Ractliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa, which featured the series Terreno Ocupado (2007).

In 2010 she was awarded a Writing Fellowship at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and in 2011 she was nominated for the Discovery Prize at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, and As Terras do Fim do Mundo was nominated as the best photobook of 2010 at the International Photobook Festival in Kassel (2011).

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Jodi Bieber

Jodi Bieber studied photography at the Market Theatre photographic workshop, a non-profit organisation founded by David Goldblatt. Jodi worked as a freelancing darkroom assistant at the Star Newsletter between 1993 and 1996. She covered the first democratic elections in South Africa, winning numerous South African Press Awards. After attending the World Press Masterclass in Amsterdam in 1996 she began freelancing for foreign magazines and newspapers. 

She has been awarded 7 World Press Photographic Awards, which include four 1st prizes. She also won a gold prize for Reportage Spread or Single Page in The Society of Publications Designers Awards in New York 2001 for her work on the Ebola Crisis in Uganda for The New York Times Magazine. She was also one of 100 global photographers chosen for “A Day in the Life of Africa” book project in 2002. Jodi Bieber’s book Soweto was published in 2010, containing contemporary scenes from the township of Soweto in Johannesburg.

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Zanele Muholi

Photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi is based in Johannesburg. Muholi studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and in 2009 completed an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto. Muholi’s work has been recognised for its radical emphasis on marginalised communities in South Africa which explores queerness, blackness, femininity, and the intersections in between. Muholi’s photographs are an attempt to create an archive and dialogue surrounding both blatant and epistemic violence against black queer communities in South Africa. “This is a time for a visual state of emergence,” Muholi says. “The preservation and mapping of our herstories is the only way for us black lesbians to be visible.”

Muholi’s portraits don’t exploit their subjects for a progressivist agenda despite their political potency and are intimate, sensitive, and organic. This includes close-ups of women kissing, dancing at weddings, and bathing in colourful baths to commodity the black female body as the African other and the object of a patriarchal colonial imagination. In Muholi’s more recent series, Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi becomes the participant and the image-maker and won the 2019 Best Photography Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation. Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, Muholi’s self-portraits reference specific events in South Africa’s political history. By exaggerating the darkness of Muholi’s skin tone, Muholi reclaims blackness and offsets the culturally dominant images of black women in the media today. Zanele Muholi makes us see and makes us feel all the contradictions of looking: discomfort, sadness, pain, and radical joy.

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