by Dale Bond
Dr. Christine Saidi teaches several courses on African history at KU, and has published a book and multiple papers on the subject. In an article in the Reading Eagle last semester on a previous library art exhibit (found here), she talked about taking a class on African history at UCLA, which initially got her “hooked on Africa.” Here, she addresses her latest exhibit on display at Rohrbach Library, “Bold Mamas and Audacious Entrepreneurs,” which portrays the strong role of women – and mothers, specifically – in African culture.
What specifically so entranced you about the continent, leading you to later travel there? What sort of career path or major were you pursuing before you took the class on African history? If it was a rather different direction than what you are currently doing, do you hope to someday return to that track, or are your plans to continue your research on Africa?
I was studying history and was interested in Chicano labor history, but once I took an African history course, that was it. Of course I will continue with my research on Africa because once you get a PhD. in a field, you have a direction for your career. But I am interested in doing historical research on gender transformations in world history.
When you first began collecting artifacts linked to African culture, was it for your own personal enjoyment of the pieces, or did you always want to use them to teach and inspire others?
Prior to returning to UCLA, I was both a performance and installation artist, so I have a background in art. I collected the art for me primarily, but while I was teaching at Penn State University Park, I was able to display my art in their gallery. So I guess the answer is that they give me a great deal of pleasure, but they also are great for teaching people about African history.
Was the concept of feminine strength and leadership in Africa something that initially pushed you to delve further into the subject, or was it something you discovered later on in your studies?
I received a Fulbright to study KiSwahili in Kenya. I was just starting my research and I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks with a Swahili bride and her family. From the older women in her family I learned that everything I had learned about African women and their status was wrong. These were Muslim African women who wore long black hijab garments, owned the majority of the business, and controlled their lives in amazing ways. This experience started me on a path to study the role of gender in early African history.
Do you have a favorite piece in the collection, or is there a piece which has a story behind it that stands out to you?
I was really good friends with three of the artists, Mulenga, Chipoya and Kata, and when I see their art I remember the great times I had with them. In 1998, I received a Senior Researcher Fulbright to study for a year in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I collected the majority of the art during that year. Two of the artists, Mulenga and Chipoya, died of AIDS in 2008 and 2004 respectively. I feel so sad when I see their art.
The large quilt and the small painted boards are from Zimbabwe and remind me of the park next to the Zimbabwe Art Museum, where women sell their art. It is an amazing place, and as you can see, the art is fantastic and about their lives.
Why did you choose to share this specific collection with the students at Kutztown University?
I had already shown most of this at Penn State University Park, so Bruce Jensen (Multicultural Support Librarian) and I started discussing having an exhibit in the library. I wanted a big exhibit that might make students think about Africa and hopefully encourage them to study more about Africa and Africans. It is a lot of work to do, but I think it is worth it. I also wanted to be sure that it was up by Black History Month.
Is your hope, as with the previous collection from last semester, to simply “get students interested in Africa,” or do you hope they will learn something more specific from this more concentrated collection?
The last exhibit had the theme of ecology in Africa and it was probably more subtle than the current exhibit. The theme of this exhibit is about the power and status of African women and how it is reflected in both contemporary and traditional African art. I think it is very telling that contemporary African art centers around African women working and contributing to their societies – in contrast to Western art, where women are usually just pretty objects, not important members of society.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about the pieces in the collection?
Each piece represents an encounter with an African artist, and each piece has an amazing story. I tried to tell many of those stories in the collection.
The “Bold Mamas and Audacious Entrepreneurs” exhibit will be on display through Kutztown University’s Spring 2014 semester. For more information, check out the brochure for the exhibit online here, pick up a printed copy at the library front desk, or tune into this blog weekly to learn about each exciting display.