Gloria Oyarzabal, Woman Go No’Gree

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2020 by Editorial RM (here) and Images Vevey (here). Hardcover (19×27.5 cm), 176 pages, with 90 color and black and white photographs. Includes writings by the artist. Design by Tres Tipos Gráficos. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Spanish artist Gloria Oyarzabal’s recent photobook deals with systems of power and how European categories are imposed, and often still define, our perception of African culture. Titled Woman Go No’Gree, the book offers a layered investigation of gender, knowledge-making, stereotypes, and the clichés of Africa, via a visual exploration of colonialism and white feminism in West Africa. The complexity of the subject Oyarzabal attempts to unpack is reflected in the rich visual and textual narrative she mindfully brings together, making the book both a research project and an attempt to decolonize the artist’s own gaze.

Woman Go No’Gree has a bright yellow cloth cover, with Oyarzabal’s intentions stated right on the front in a green font. A cut out in the shape of a pointing finger reinforces the idea that the artist is looking at, and judging, herself. Through the cutout, we can see a fragment of a studio portrait of a woman dressed in an eclectic dress of colorful patterned fabric, her face covered with an arrangement of brightly colored zippers attached to a scarf around her head. Oyarzabal starts the narrative with a photo that exaggerates, even takes to extreme, European perceptions of African women, asking us to consider the gaze of colonizers. With the cover open, the finger points to that image, and the consequences of our ignorance. The title of the book references the famous, and quite controversial, song by Fela Kuti “Lady” released in 1972. The song phrase is a mix of English and Creole, meaning “woman will not listen, or will not agree,” and Oyarzabal has changed the order of the words to read “women don’t have to agree”.

To build her narrative, Oyarzabal brings archival images from the colonial era, some of them manipulated, into conversation with her own contemporary photographs, which were shot in a studio setting and on the streets. In the introduction, Oyarzabal lays out her intentions and also makes it clear that the project relates to her own personal experience, and the process of asking questions and learning, and ultimately, growing. Oyarzabal was inspired by various African feminists and intellectuals, including Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùm and Ifi Amadiume who wrote extensively about these issues, and they are often quoted in the book. A photograph showing a young African woman looking straight into the camera while a white hand points at her nude body reminds us how a colonial mentality constructed and reinforced the idea of the “other”. A few pages later, an African woman gives a skeptical look to a white woman missionary. It is followed by an image of a young woman on a beach caught running with a small parachute, as if being literally dragged backward.

In the text opening of the first chapter, Oyarzabal discusses European gender categories and their influence on our perception of others. Gender is a Western construction and is not universal, and it is not sufficient when applied to other communities. Oyarzabal uses the example of Yorùbá society, which didn’t have any gender division before colonization, and “seniority is at the core of its linguistic and social organization”. The evidence shows that social practices in many African cultures were not gendered. So what impact and consequences does the universalistic Western approach to gender and feminism have on our perception of African women?

The excellent sequencing of images creates a thoughtful visual narrative to illustrate Oyarzabal’s ideas. European colonizers force African women to stick to the limited roles of wives, mothers, and home keepers, while before colonization, many of them held positions of power in their communities. An archival image of a woman in a position of power, giving a skeptical look to a white man who tries to take away her sceptre is a fitting representation of this situation. Another image of a group of women taking a break by a giant beauty product advertisement symbolizes the domination of the Western standard of beauty with its focus on thinness, youth, and whiteness.

The second chapter looks at the failures of Western feminism to look outside its own single perspective and consider other contexts. There are images of Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, an icon of the women’s struggle for rights, and pictures of the women and men the artist encountered on the streets and bars of Lagos. Oyarzabal flips figures from archival Nigerian magazines, adding washed out colors and emphasizing that social structures in many societies are not connected to gender and it is normal for men to take on traditional feminine roles. 

Woman Go No’Gree leaves us feeling that these women are powerful, determined, and know who they are, the pairing and ordering of the pictures designed to question and expose cultural stereotypes. Women can be Black, white, straight, rich, indigenous, queer, or any other qualifier that makes their experience of womanhood less general and more specific. Printed on a lighter paper, the appendix at the end of the book provides more in-depth discussion of related issues, using thumbnails to cross-reference images included in the book.

Woman Go No’Gree is a considered and thoughtful photobook, with an elegant design and superb production. This book definitely requires both reading and looking, as Oyarzabal challenges us to rethink the existing framework of gender and race. She hopes that this book can spark curiosity about other voices, silenced or ignored, by clearly showing what and how this can be done. Another photobook published last year, Leopold’s Legacy by Oliver Leu (reviewed here), used texts and visuals to address Belgium’s dark history and take responsibility for its own colonial history. While different in their formats and execution, these books open and expand an important and complicated conversation about the role of photography in replicating racism, the understanding and acknowledgement of the past providing a first step forward toward change.

Collector’s POV: Gloria Oyarzabal does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Gloria Oyarzabal, Editorial RM, Images Vevey

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