"Exhibiting You" - Story

Painting Power and History

Nigerian Artist Revives an Ancient Igbo Women's Art Form

Submitted: 02/12/2008

Historically, uli art could be found all over southeastern Nigeria, where Igbo peoples mainly reside, but by the mid 20th century the tradition had almost died out.  In the 1970s, uli forms began appearing in the work of contemporary male Nigerian artists.  Chinwe Uwatse seeks to reclaim this female art form and, in doing so, elevate Igbo women past and present.

This selection of paintings is from Uwatse's exhibition, Burdens We Bear.  This exhibition uses both art and poetry to show the obstacles women face and the multiple roles they play as mothers, professionals and leaders. "Our culture is our identity," Uwatse says. "It lives in and evolves through us. For all contemporary women: Wait not for a new dawn, for we are the present and the past. We are part of the future. We shall make it last."

Traditionally, women in Igbo society occupied high-ranking leadership positions.  An omu, or "mother" of the community, was a powerful overseer of women's affairs as well as an advisor to the obi, or male monarch. Oral traditions tell of an omu who led a community-wide women's boycott in which women refused to cook for their husbands, who ultimately heeded their demands.

During the time of British colonialism, Igbo women lost many of their leadership positions, but that didn't mean they didn't fight back.  In 1929, Igbo women shocked their countrymen and the British when they launched a highly organized protest against the colonial system.  It's become known as "The Women's War."

It all began with one village widow and one male census taker.  From past experience, the Igbo knew that a census meant new taxes.  Rumors were rampant that women would soon be taxed as well as men, a shocking change to Igbo tradition.  So, when the census taker made his first stop at the widow's house and asked her to count her family members and animals, she retorted with a shaming "Was your widowed mother counted?"

The village women sprung into action, and spread the word of protest by way of a unique form of communication: sending palm oil leaves, a traditional form of invitation.  In no time, women from around the province gathered to "sit" on the warrant chief, a traditional form of protest that entailed dancing into all hours of the night outside his house, following him wherever he went, and singing boisterous and rude songs. They demanded the "cap," or resignation, of the warrant chief and used their weapon of "sitting on the man" until their demands for a trial were met. 

The Women's War spread throughout Igboland and women replicated the strategy of "sitting on the man" to stand up to the colonial system.  Many reclaimed positions of leadership, eventually earning seats for themselves on the local courts.

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