Saturday, 8 March 2014


A photograph by Angèle Etoundi Essamba at the UNESCO show.

The statistics are sobering: “women and children constitute two-thirds of the world’s poor … women make up just 21 percent of the world’s parliamentarians … seven out of 10 women report having experienced violence in their lifetime”.

Even on International Women’s Day (March 8), women will experience abuse and worse. Aware of this, the artists taking part in a wide-ranging exhibition at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, have chosen to focus on women’s strength in the face of continuing struggles.

Through paintings, photographs, sketches, video and other media, they are highlighting women’s contributions and perseverance in a world where girls still face discrimination in many countries, including those that are member states of UNESCO.

Angèle Etoundi Essamba discusses her work. (© McKenzie)
“This is about strength as well as fragility,” said the Cameroon-born photographer Angèle Etoundi Essamba, who has contributed 25 luminous portraits from her “Women of the Water” project to the group show.

Her huge photographs depict women, girls, and mothers with children as they go about their work or daily life on the waterways of Benin. The aim is to show how women are coping with climate change, poverty and global water issues, amid other concerns. But the overall impact is one of beauty.

“The show combines art and development,” Essamba said. “It shows the daily struggles that these women are dealing with, but they go for it, they fight and they survive.

“This is what inspired me to do this work - to show how brave they are, and how elegant and strong and proud they are,” she added.

The subjects of her photographs are dressed in traditional clothing, and are seen steering canoes, ferrying their children to school, washing clothes. The creative use of light and colour take the pictures into the realm of art, but art that inspires discussion.

Photojournalist Natalia Ivanova with image. (© McKenzie)
Emmanuel Dollfus, a spokesman with the French Development Agency, which partially funded the project, told SWAN that the photographs would help to make the international community more aware of the impact of climate change on local communities and especially on women. Besides Paris, Essamba’s works will be seen in a number of other cities, including Amsterdam, where she is based.

The UNESCO exhibition, which is open to the public until March 20, also features paintings from Azerbaijan artist Asmar Narimanbekova, Bangladeshi painters Rokeya Sultana and Kanak Chanpa Chakma, and traditional textile art from indigenous women in Bolivia.

For her part, the Russian photojournalist Natalia Ivanova is presenting a project that examines notions of feminine beauty. Titled “Les Origines de la Beauté ” (The Ethnic Origins of Beauty), the non-commercial documentary and artistic venture seeks to capture feminine appearances in all their diversity.

Ivanova has photographed women in Moscow as well as in Paris, including some who were just passing through, and the project includes a video of interviews in which her subjects talk about their life and experiences.

One hundred women have so far participated in the photo series, but Ivanova plans to create more than 5,000 portraits, which would bring together all the “ethnicities of the human race”. The project is also a plea for peace and for an end to discrimination, she said.

An excerpt from "The Ethnic Origins of Beauty" by Natalia Ivanova