Why paint your office walls?

When I entered AWDF House in Accra in my new role as Director of Programmes the first thing I noticed were the walls. Large swathes of blank white space, stretching high above my head, framed on the approach by enormous white columns. I kept thinking about these walls. Their blankness, their apparent indifference, and the contrasting vibrance of the African feminist thought and action being resourced from within them.

A month into the job I initiated planning for the fourth African Feminist Forum, a gathering that had ushered me head first into the world of African feminist organising in 2003 when I first attended a now historic gathering of African feminists in Zanzibar. We began to consider themes for the forum and decided on the affirming ‘Voice, Power and Soul’, convening 170 feminists in Harare in April 2016 to learn and strategise. As busy as I was, the blank walls of AWDF House kept pressing on my mind. The walls needed to speak.

Finally one afternoon I started up a conversation with Dr. Sionne Neely, AWDF’s Knowledge Management Specialist at the time, about the potential canvases all around us. Art had brought Sionne to Ghana where she had conducted her PhD research on Ghana’s music scene, and had gone on to co-found the public arts initiative Accra Dot Alt, producers of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. She was thrilled by the idea of bringing life to this blank concrete. As we talked we started to imagine what the walls might say if they were asked to echo the activism supported by AWDF and to invoke the legacy of the work that women in the African Feminist Forum had shaped.

Sionne and I drafted what is still one of the most inspiring terms of reference that I have worked on at AWDF: a brief to give visual voice to the movements that have transformed our worlds as African women. We chose to contract Maku Azu, a Ghanaian woman painter who sat with Sionne and myself, and with different staff teams to discuss who and what would be documented in the murals.

Maku worked into the night- late at night. 2am. Leaving heart-stopping surprises for us in the morning. The entry-way was first. She had spent the weekend perched on scaffolding, coating the towering walls in deep purples and blues, bringing out the faces of women representing all regions of Africa, framed around the text African women- making the impossible, possible. Staff were invited to join in, painting symbols drawn from African cosmologies and writing systems that spoke to feminine consciousness, strength, resourcefulness and the energy of transformation.

The murals kept going.

The external walls of the Resource Centre spoke about women’s movements for disability rights, sex worker rights, LBT rights and peace that AWDF has funded across its history. The entry to the Finance office was framed by images of women engaged in transformative economics- movements for food sovereignty and financial autonomy. The meeting room invoked the work that African feminists put into creating the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and its groundbreaking provisions, and the slogans of popular movements of women in urban areas to push back against the social policing of women’s bodies and declare ‘my dress my choice’. Maku inscribed passages from the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists along the walls in the Grants and Fundraising and Communications offices. The passageway to the kitchen spoke the words ‘Voice, Power and Soul’ in Hausa, Kiswahili, Shona, Twi and several other African languages echoing the theme of the 4th African Feminist Forum.

Visitors to AWDF House often comment on the walls, and a mural tour has become a standard part of our welcome for the many grantees, collaborators and groups of students that pass through. The walls inspire discussion, raising conversations about the sheer diversity of African women’s organising, the presence of a political guiding document like the African Feminist Charter, and the dynamics around sexual politics and the discomfort many still feel with a public embrace of LBT rights and gender non-conformity. However the reaction that will remain in my heart is that of AWDF’s long standing driver Felix- a man of few words- who stood in the reception the morning after Maku had worked on her magnificent first wall and gasped “this is beautiful!”.

From the red, white and black designs that women paint on their houses in Sirigu, Northern Ghana speaking of myth, community ethics and the environment, to the feminist graffiti of the Egyptian revolution- women have always used walls to tell our side of the story. To protest, to remember, to inspire. The walls of AWDF House are now fully alive and talking.

This blog is first in a series of reflections by Jessica Horn, the outgoing Director of Programmes at AWDF, on programme strategy, organisational culture and feminist transformation. She tweets @stillsherises

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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