Unmasking Gender Experiences in Covid-19

Sule Ameh James (Ph.D.) 

Research Associate,  

The Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, 

University of Johannesburg



My exhibition features five works that unmask some lived experiences of African women in 2020 and speaks to some changes that happened. Things changed in several ways when the Covid-19 pandemic started in 2020 on the African continent, apart from the threat to lives and several death cases. The thematic thrusts of the paintings begin with Masking or Fashion? As face masks became mandatory, when accessing public spaces, the adoption of creative and fashionable face masks became evident among women. Although they revealed innovation in African societies, they highlighted tastes for fashion rather than protection against Covid-19. This is not to deny the fact that those face masks protected them. But one would wonder if African women were masking consciously because of the pandemic or using it to define their tastes, class, or social identity. The next painting, titled Meeting in 2020,reflects the disruption to the traditional practice of physical meetings in offices, organisations, and businesses. This was replaced with virtual meetings, which people joined on their handsets, laptops, or other devices. Despite the disruption, the alternative platforms brought joy to many who could reconnect with colleagues and hold meetings. Then the next painting, entitled African Woman Shopping, highlights one of the preferences of a woman who went shopping. It was characterised by the purchase of fruits rich in vitamin C, as people believed they promote good health and may boost resistance against Covid-19 infection. It also relays ideas on gender roles. The fourth painting Looking Backward at 2020,draws attention not just to how the life of the African child was disrupted but redefined in many ways. As a result of the pandemic, schools were closed, the academic calendars were disrupted, and children had to stay at home for several months. When they reopened, many could not play with friends in school because of social distancing and other restrictions to prevent the further spread of the Covid-19 virus. The look reflects pains in children who became orphans because the pandemic claimed the lives of their parents or guardians, leaving them hopeless. For some others surviving 2020 was a miracle. The last painting, titled Looking Beyond 2020, reflects apprehension. Although the African woman is dressed in a Benin cultural dress form in the Niger-delta region of Nigeria, her look symbolises the futuristic look of many women whose lives, businesses, and works were disrupted. And some others who lost partners or loved ones in 2020. In conclusion, the themes communicate ideas that revolve around and beyond the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Figure 1: Masking or Fashion, 2021, oil on canvas, 64cm x 49.5cm (Photograph by artist) 

Figure 2: Meeting in 2020, 2021, oil on canvas, 35 x 37.5 Inches  (Photograph by artist) 

Figure 3: African Woman Shopping, 2020, oil on canvas, 100cm x 76cm

Figure 4: Looking Back at 2020, 2020, oil on canvas, 100cm x 69cm

Figure 5: Looking Beyond 2020, 2020, oil on canvas, 100cm x 76cm


October 13, 2021


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