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African Women in Art Form

Gwyneth Leech was interested in street markets before she traveled to West Africa. She had even written a thesis about African immigrants and Paris street markets for her university degree. But her encounters with and observations of them, in the countries of Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso, have strengthened her interest into a realization that they are virtual life symbols.

She and her husband, David Wilson, went to West Africa (and also North and East) not principally to see landscape or wild animals, and not to see the artifacts of African art, but to see people. It seems that it was in the markets that people could be most closely and tellingly observed.

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Many of the paintings this American artist (born in Philadelphia in 1959) has produced since returning to Scotland, her home now for 12 years, after 20 months traveling overland in Africa and Asia, show that street markets are, for her, far more than a passing fascination. These intensely colored, densely populated paintings are a way of life watched, recorded, and turned into art. They are remarkable attempts to epitomize a sturdy culture and, particularly, to sing the praises of African women.

Inevitably, they are the images and impressions of an outsider, but they are much more than attractively picturesque. They convince the viewer that they are an insider's view, a participatory experience, taking you right into the melee and chatter, the buying and selling - into the actual rhythms and patterns of these crowded gatherings of trade and exchange.

In most parts of Africa where she traveled, Leech saw that women seemed subjugated by traditional beliefs about their status, but in West Africa she encountered many who were energetic traders, particularly in cloth. These women cross borders and travel widely for their commerce.

Leech's market paintings are not simply memories or approximations. They have come from a considerable amount of drawing on the spot. She made detailed color notes on these drawings and painted with watercolor in the evenings to fix them for the record. She also wrote a daily journal and letters. All these have fed the amalgamation of ideas that have formed into her large oil paintings in her Glasgow studio.

The only time in Africa that Leech put away her drawing pad was when they joined a safari to a game park with other foreign tourists. This was a context that catered to the quick fire of the camera, but not the slower pace of the artist. But Leech and her husband were travellers rather than tourists: They spent six months in Africa, not just 10 days looking at lions and elephants as do many visitors.

THE couple's best experiences came when they were the recipients of the generous hospitality Africans can quite spontaneously give to strangers. This was even more likely to happen off the beaten track, in remote villages, where they were like the astonishing manifestations of another world to people who had never seen a white person. If there was any danger that, as an artist, Leech might have been guilty of observing people as objectively as if they were in a zoo, she soon found that the opposite was the case.

She and David were the oddities, and because of the staring interest they aroused she frequently found she could draw only for a short time before the crowd of curious onlookers formed not only behind her, but also in front. Her husband's attempts to draw this attention away by juggling and other tactics worked only for a while.

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In the markets, Leech would ``communicate'' with the women, holding their babies and so on, and only afterward would she realize they didn't have a word of the same language in common.

At the end of 20 months on the move, she and her husband spent some time in New York. Here she attended life classes at the Art Students' League. She felt the need to practice drawing from the model again after working so long on a small scale. During 1981 and 1985, she had been an art student at Edinburgh College of Art i Scotland (after taking her BA degree in Pennsylvania). She had been required to draw from models endlessly. Drawing the figure is actually the basis of her art, a skill she believes should be kept alive by practice.

While in New York, she made a number of small oil-pastel drawings on paper, and their boldness and rich color show how she was working toward the larger paintings she has since made in Glasgow. These small oil-pastels (and at least one small oil painting called ``Lumo,'' shown here) are more spontaneous than some of her larger oils, but their scale is almost monumental. Concentrating on a few figures, they vigorously reduce them to heavily outlined forms that allow as much play as possible for the pattern and color of their dresses.

Again, Leech depicts largely women, and their costumes vibrate with fierce combinations of patterned color - not all of which is traditional African cloth. Some of the tops these women wear are cheap synthetics from China. The total effect is still - in Leech's re-creations at least - profoundly African.

Also while they were in New York, Leech looked long and hard at Gauguin - or at least at one particular Gauguin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ``la Orana Maria.'' It would be easy to point to characteristics in common between Leech's African women and Gauguin's Tahitian women. But the differences are much more crucial.

Looking at the Metropolitan's Gauguin doubtless helped Leech to see how her interest was in the independent vigor of the women who trade in markets, and who still have living links with traditional ways of life, sustaining a happiness in spite of material conditions that would reduce a Westerner to abject misery and complaint.

Gauguin's interest, in contrast, was both exotic and, to a degree, erotic. And where he was quite prepared to invent in his imagination a Tahiti that in reality scarcely existed when he lived there, Leech has brought back to her Western audience a rather down-to-earth authenticity that - although inevitably the result of a selective eye - cannot be called simply romantic.

These paintings are a way of life watched, recorded, and turned into art. They are remarkable attempts to epitomize a sturdy culture and to sing the praises of African women.

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