UN Women’s New Benefit Auction and Show Spotlight Black Women Artists across the World

Daria Simone Harper
Jul 16, 2021 6:35PM

Over the past several decades, we’ve witnessed many notable strides and attempts to fill crucial art history gaps, yet Black women artists are still frequently held back. And though the art world’s traditions of gatekeeping persist, the work of countless committed researchers, curators, archivists, and historians has proven that women artists of African descent are beyond due to receive well-deserved recognition, support, and patronage.

This July, UN Women—the branch of the United Nations dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment—is holding “A Force for Change—UN Women: Benefit Auction 2021.” The online auction, which opens exclusively on Artsy today and runs through July 30th, will benefit UN Women’s Black Women Programme, which will support a number of Black women–led organizations across the globe. Works in the sale will be shown in a group exhibition in New York organized by curator and art advisor Erin Jenoa Gilbert, open from July 27th through 31st at 530 West 25th Street in Chelsea. The show features 26 rising women artists of African descent working across photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, and film. Proceeds from the auction will go to UN Women’s Black Women Programme and the featured artists.


“A Force for Change” spotlights work from esteemed names like Cassi Namoda, Wangari Mathenge, and Tschabalala Self, but also from lesser-known artists living and working in Africa, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Europe, and the United States, like Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, and Sungi Mlengeya.

“Racial justice and gender inequality are not separate but integrally linked—and UN Women’s work prioritizes both,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, in a recent press release. She added, “Through the global Black Women Programme, and this exhibition that will raise funding for that work, we will support Black women’s movements and organizations in different parts of the world to foster closer ties and give greater power to their voice and actions.”

Given UN Women’s dedication to gender equality and the empowerment of women on a global scale, it was important to Gilbert to feature an international cohort of artists. In a recent interview, she emphasized that prioritizing artists living and working outside of the major art hubs—like New York, Los Angeles, and London—is crucial to increasing recognition for more women artists of African descent.

“The myth is that great artists live in one of three places in the world,” Gilbert said. She pointed out that many arts professionals—notably, the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor—have worked for decades to decentralize the art world and dispel misconceptions about where notable artists should live and work. Calling on Enwezor’s ongoing discussion of “centers and peripheries” in the art world, Gilbert also noted that “there is an infrastructure that still needs to be developed in terms of MFA programs, residencies, fellowships, museums and galleries in the Deep South and global south.”

Throughout her career, Gilbert has been dedicated to the expansion of knowledge and recognition for women artists of African descent. During her time as the curator of African American manuscripts at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, she collected the papers of nearly 20 artists, many of whom were Black women. Gilbert—who has also held positions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Art Institute of Chicago—noted that “A Force for Change” builds upon her efforts to ensure that the art canon represents artists who have been marginalized due to their gender, race, and in some cases, their discipline.

As Gilbert wrote in the exhibition’s curatorial statement, the featured works are “statements of survival and of solidarity.” In many ways, they nod to the survival of the past year; the deep psychological impact that the pandemic made upon countless individuals worldwide; and the way that COVID-19 exacerbated many of the conditions of oppression that marginalized communities were already facing. Even more so, the works draw on the spirit of ancestral survival that African diasporic women carry with them every day—from the constant acts of oppression over the past 400 years to all the moments of joy in between. The works are statements of solidarity with Black women whose lives have been taken due to racial violence; women around the world who are leading social justice movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement and Until Freedom organization; and everyday Black women who look out for each other when the world doesn’t look out for us.

While the artists featured in “A Force for Change” were not given thematic criteria for the works they contributed to the exhibition, certain unifying threads emerged organically, like regality, self-regard, and self-possession. Several artworks feature self-portraiture—including a set of images by Senegalese designer and artist Selly Raby Kane, and a black-and-white screen-printed work by German Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku. These artists’ intimate documentations of self offer poignant reflections on their shared and unique experiences as contemporary women of African descent. The works also challenge dominant portrayals and misrepresentations of African diasporic women in art, and in wider mainstream media. Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Zina Saro-Wiwa contributes a stunning set of portraits of a woman wearing a yellow scarf on her head and a similarly hued fabric wrapped around her torso; she is positioned against a jet-black backdrop. In the first image, she looks away from the frame, while in the second, she gazes directly into the viewer’s eyes.

“This is an Ogoni farming woman. Actually from the village I am from,” Saro-Wiwa wrote via email. “I love African farming women and I think that they are poorly represented and understood. I think they are far wiser and in tune with the world around them than the world gives them credit for. The outside world sees the image of an African farming woman and they immediately see pity, hardship, pain. This is not to say that these people don’t experience those things, but I want to show that they are much more than that also.”

Saro-Wiwa explained that in reading the images from left to right, the shift in the subject’s gaze is transformative. When the woman looks away from the frame, it nearly opens the door to the usual tropes surrounding rural African women. But when she meets your gaze, it “discomfits you,” the artist wrote. “She knows something that perhaps you do not. She is also doubting your view of her. And doubting your view of yourself. The image is hinting at the very considerable power and knowledge African farming women possess, but do not necessarily wield openly.”

There are also depictions of women engaging with one another. Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, painted a vibrant vignette of four women seated calmly in a partitioned, multi-colored room. Two of these women, clad in vibrant, swirling dresses, are in direct relationship to one another, with one seated on a bench as the other casually rests an arm on her shoulder. The other two women in the frame are a bit more isolated, yet still share the same space. The environment Mulanga presents is one of comfort, ease, and rest.

“These women are existing harmoniously, within a kind of balanced framework,” Gilbert said. “They are recognizing and engaging with one another. Often, their gaze is not exterior, but it is interior. They’re looking at one another and thinking about one another’s presence.” Mulanga’s portrayal of multiple women figures emphasizes one of the key messages of “A Force for Change”: the power in collective engagement among African diasporic women.

Browse “A Force for Change—UN Women: Benefit Auction 2021” on Artsy.

Daria Simone Harper