Curatorial Statement: Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South

Clive Kellner

Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South

(16 September 2020 – 30 January 2021)

The exhibition explored distinct ways of representing the body by five women artists from the Global South: Bharti Kher (India), Nandipha Mntambo (South Africa), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya/USA), Shirin Neshat (Iran/USA) and Berni Searle (South Africa). This was the first exhibition in our research theme Female Identities in the Global South.

How do contemporary women artists explore their own identity in their artistic practice? What are the fictions and frictions that arise when depicting the female body? The body as subject, and particularly its relation to Black subjectivity, was the thematic thread of this exhibition. The notion of Blackness was used in an inclusive sense to refer to a broad designation of people who identify as non-Western. The concept of hybridity was thus central to the exhibition hypothesis. It was revealed in the artworks and in the performed identities of the artists, and was key to countering notions of racial purity and extremism. Each of the five artists offered diverse and multifaceted representations of the female body, incorporating hybrids, warriors, martyrs and mothers, thereby affirming the inclusion of all of these within cosmopolitan modernities.

The exhibition was curated into three areas or “worlds” that amplified the conceptual connections and formal affinities between various artworks.

The First World – The Fall

The first world was configured around the Fall, which evoked the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, a realm where the natural and human worlds meet. It is a realm of the sacred and profane in which the human is enfolded.

The Second World – Hybrids

The animal–human hybrid figures represented the second world of the exhibition. Hybridity refers to the mingling of species, races or cultures, a crossing of one thing with another. The figures were both abject and powerful, beautiful and repulsive. This uncomfortable ambivalence was meant to provoke a response in the viewer, who had to consider the relationship between themselves and other, different subjectivities.

The Third World – Body

In the third world of the exhibition, the viewer was reminded that the body is real and embedded in race, religion and identity. The works offered an intimate depiction of women, who were transformed by the aging process, or whose faces were concealed behind Farsi calligraphy or veils of Belgian lace.


The artists in Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South explore the complexities of women’s subjectivity in relation to the body. In their work, the Black or non-Western body is transformed, inscribed and enacted upon in poetic ways so as to render visible the fiction of self. Their individual practices reflect on the personal yet resonate with overarching global cultural concerns while at the same time referring to home and place. Ironically, none of the women depicted speak any dialogue. Instead, gestures are created through silent articulations such as the gaze of the eyes or the pose of the body.


The exhibition was conceived of as an other-worldly environment in which the design helped to generate an imaginary, dream-like world. Bridges act as metaphors for identity, connecting these worlds and showing them as constructed and tangible within the “natural” environment of the dreamscape. A statement by the artist Lorraine O’Grady, in which she speaks of her upbringing, inspired aspects of the conceptualisation of this exhibition:

“Because I was raised by West Indian parents in one of the most traditional areas of New England culture, Boston’s Back Bay, my childhood placed me at a distance from wherever I stood and required me to always build a bridge to some other place. One had to be several things at once … both Caribbean and New England, both African American and West Indian, both black and white … and to daily negotiate the differences …”1

In light of this, the exhibition produced a theatrical space in which the audience engaged with the artists’ works. It provided an exploratory viewing experience rather than a passive consumerist transaction with the artworks. Through this experience, the “white cube”, as an exhibition mode that decontextualises artworks and mediates the visitor’s engagement to a particular way of looking, is usurped.


Clive Kellner is the Executive Director of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). He was Chief Curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004–2009), coordinator of the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), co-founder of the pan African platform Camouflage and Editor in Chief of Coartnews (1999–2002). His curated exhibitions include Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2022); Liminal Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2021); Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2020); Yinka Shonibare (Camouflage, 2001); and Videobrasil: Mostra Africana De Arte Contemporanea (2000). He also organised Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (JAG, 2007).


  1. Quotation from an exhibition wall text celebrating the acquisition of Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album (1980/1994), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 28 November 2018.

How to cite this article:
Clive Kellner (2024), "Curatorial Statement: Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. Accessed 24 April 2024.