African Heroes: How Art Teaches Us About Their Struggles

AMA #WCW by Dada Khanyisa, 2018 (NMAfA, gift of Shari and John Behnke)

Africa is home to some of the world’s first discoveries of art created by ancient civilisations who first expressed their cultural characteristics with cave paintings. From then until now African artists have given us an insight into the history of this vast continent.

One of the latest exhibitions in the Smithsonian Museum of African Art is called Heroes: Principles of African Greatness. The exhibition features around 50 paintings, photographs and sculptures from all over Africa. 

But, this exhibition has a unique twist. Each work of art is paired with an African who played a part in Africa’s struggle for liberty and freedom. Each pair is also labelled with an adjective highlighting a core value. 

For example, the exhibition features a painting by Nelson Mandela. It is of the quarry where he was forced to work each day breaking up limestone rocks in the heat of the burning sun. The picture is paired with Nelson Mandela and is labelled “Revolutionary.” The perfect adjective to describe this African hero. The exhibition also includes other well-known African heroes. You can see Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X and Steve Biko.  

But who are the other heroes who are part of African history and what are their stories? Here, we have chosen to tell you about two of them. They were born 150 years apart, but they both influenced African liberty.     

Huda Shaawari

Huda Shaawari

Huda was born in Cairo in 1879. She was a pioneering activist and feminist during the early 20th century. She believed strongly that women should have an equal place in society. This was at a time when most women were brought up in segregated harems. They were also encouraged to cover their heads with a veil. And, although she had agreed to an arranged marriage at the age of 13. Her husband was a cousin decades older than Huda.

She set up Egypt’s first Women’s Philanthropic Society in 1908. Two years later she opened a school for girls. It raised awareness of the importance of education for women.

In 1919 Egypt began a revolution against British occupation. Huda helped to organise a women’s anti-British demonstration. 

In 1922 Egypt was granted independence. But, women were not given a voice in politics. This led Huda to create the Egyptian Feminist Movement in 1923. She aimed to improve women’s rights and allow them to receive an education.

Huda worked tirelessly for the feminist cause until her death in 1947. Her story is accompanied by the sculpture by Ghada Amer called ‘The Blue Bra Girls’ with its core value being “Empowerment.”  

Huda’s memoirs were published in 1987 under the title The Harem Years: The memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist.

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius was born in 1729. It is said that he was on a boat which had picked up slaves in West Africa and was taking them to the West Indies. But, Sancho in letters he wrote in later years said he was born in West Africa. At the age of 2 he became a slave in a household in London. It was in this household that he met the Duke of Montagu. The Duke gave him books and he became an enthusiastic reader, using books to educate himself.

When the Duke died, Sancho ran away from the London household. He worked first for the Duke’s widow and then for his daughter and son-in-law. He saved his money, got married and left the Montagu’s to set up as a greengrocer. 

He was well-known as a man of letters. Many of his friends were authors and artists. They included Gainsborough who painted his portrait. He was also the first black man to vote in parliamentary elections. But, he never forgot his roots. 

He supported the abolition of slavery. He wrote many letters to lobby his famous friends. He asked them to use their influence in the battle to end the slave trade. 

After his death, his letters were published in book form. They gave the people of Britain an insight into the horrors of slavery. This added weight to the abolition cause. Slavery was finally abolished in 1834, but it was more than fifty years after Sancho’s death.

Sancho’s story is paired with Paa Joe’s Fort William. This fort had a prison which housed slaves waiting for the transfer to slavery in the Americas. The label used here is “witness.” If you want to know more there is a selection from the Smithsonian exhibition online. 

Leave a Reply