“I think that with music, we have a bit of a superpower...And that’s the way I think we can change things. That’s the tool I’ve been given to help to change things,” Cynthia Erivo told a TED2017 audience last April, as she expressed the universality of music as a language. Anyone would agree, music does connect us all, especially a voice like Cynthia Erivo’s. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the most prestigious drama schools in the world, Erivo has been acting and singing since she was 11 years old. She was always encouraged to pursue her passions. Her mother, Edith, was instrumental in readying her for her current success. “She seemed to know the arts was where I was headed before I did, so the moment I uttered the words, the moment I said to her, ‘I want to be an actress, I want to sing,’ she said, ‘Well great, you just have to work really hard then,’” she told Allison P. Davis of Vulture.
Sethembile Msezane was always told she could do anything she wanted to do. So far, she has, and then some. According to the South African visual artist and sculpture (yes, sculpture), in her household the “Vocabulary that was encouraged was 'I will,' 'I can,' and an action plan to follow through. It still works today.” Apparently so. Sethembile has performed and exhibited her art, and herself, around the world, using her own body to convey her artistic message. Her list of art accolades includes being the first recipient of the Rising Light award at the Mbokodo Awards in 2016, winning a TAF & Sylt Emerging Artist Residency (TASA) award that same year, and becoming a TEDGlobal speaker in 2017, to name a few.
South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi has spent more than 10 years documenting the lives of the LGBT community in South Africa. Her Faces and Phases project is an ongoing series of positive imagery featuring black lesbian and transgender individuals, and was a response to the rampant violence taking place against them in her homeland. After having shot more than 250 portraits in that work, it began to take a toll on her emotionally. “I’ve listened to so many people’s pain, and it meant I had to sleep with that pain when people moved on with their lives,’’ she explains to Jenna Wortham for The New York Times Magazine. ‘‘When do photographers get time to deal with their own pain and be given their space to do it?’’ Though she didn’t give up on documenting these stories, she decided to focus her lens on herself. With Somnyama Ngonyama or Hail, the Dark Lioness, she presented a series of self portraits with a historical spin on South African politics. “This is why the self-portraits are so major to me,’’ she continues. ‘‘We get caught up in other people’s worlds, and you never ask yourself how you became.’’ And so she began the difficult work of looking at herself, her form of self-therapy. “The whole thing of turning the camera to yourself—it’s really not easy,’’ she says. ‘‘Because you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.’’
Egyptian design master Ghada Wali knows a little something about challenges. She learned early on that there were cultural traditions in Cairo that might make her journey to success difficult. “An Arab woman is raised with a million battles that she has to resolve before she can even start believing in herself,” she says. “If she manages to shake what has been built up for years, only then she can break free and start battling the next monster.” Break free she did, breaking records along the way. With Bachelor’s and Master's degrees and honors in graphic design under her belt, Wali became a multiple-award-winning designer, having created an Arabic typeface named one of the best 100 graphic design pieces in the world by the Society of Typographic Arts in Chicago. Last year alone, she became a TED Global speaker—the youngest female Speaker from the Middle East/North African region—and the first Egyptian woman in the world to make the Forbes Europe's 30 Under 30 list. But it wasn’t easy, and she continued to face cultural and gender bias, in Egypt and elsewhere. “As a Creative Team Leader I had difficulty in managing young males because they couldn’t accept a female leader,” she recounts. “My trials weren’t restricted to Cairo, if you are an Arab you’re automatically put in the ‘terrorist/danger’ zone. In the face of all of these hardships, I see women of the Arab World and Africa women as the most resilient and enigmatic women on the planet.”
Actor, director and owner of Kelechnekoff dance fitness studio, Kelechi Okafor was made to move and inspire movement, both literally and figuratively. Citing “facilitating the empowerment of other women” as what brings her joy in her work, the Lagos-born, London-bred Okafor knew she had a progressive spirit early in her childhood. “I had always felt the passion to be amongst others, impacting change.” The self-described fitness badass and twerk innovator is currently working on an e-book, gearing up to direct several short plays and facilitating a Twerking as Self-Care workshop during WOW—Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre in London this month. WOW celebrates women and explores ways to ensure they can hurdle the stumbling blocks in their way; an issue close to Okafor’s heart. “I’m passionate about any issue that involves the subjugation of Black women.” She looks to dance as a way of communicating things for which she has no words, and sees twerking as a way of mending the soul. “Dance to me is a form of healing, and I think this is probably another reason why it resonates with so many women...” she told BBC.
Lady Skollie, born Laura Windvogel in Cape Town, South Africa, is an artist and activist now based in Johannesburg. While her paintings look playful on the surface with bright colors and uniquely posed subjects, given more time, they reveal themselves as riveting masterpieces.
Starting at a young age, Windvogel was trained in more traditional art forms—first studying at Frank Joubert Art Centre in Cape Town. In 2009, she received her BA of History and Art in Dutch Literature, and a Certificate in Business Acumen for Artists from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in 2014.
This brilliant French-Senegalese artist was born in Paris, where she spent many of her childhood days visiting the Louvre, discovering nature with her mother and studying art and drawings. Diallo is not just a photographer—she is a visionary. She began her career as a graphic designer and has worked as a video editor, art director and special effect graphist in the music industry. But for the past 10 years she has been behind the lens full time, bringing light to the world through her vision and loving every minute of the inspiration she brings to others.
As an artist, writer and communications consultant Katlego Kolanyane-Kesupile is passionate about respect for media and responsible storytelling. The Botswana-born Brit and Janet Jackson enthusiast loves bringing her clients’ visions to life. She is all about individuals owning their brilliance, and she helps to get them there by telling their stories.
Co-Founder & Editor-In-Chief of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, Delphine Adama Fawundu has been working in the arts for over two decades. This Brooklyn native and multi-hyphenate loves watching her ideas come to life visually, and comes from a creative household. “My mother used to sew our clothing, and mostly prepared meals from scratch, I watched my older sister literally create her own style,” she says. “I loved her uniqueness and she inspired me to be comfortable embracing my uniqueness. My brother's love for music inspired me to discover my musical taste.”
Malin Fezehai was raised in a multicultural Stockholm neighborhood with a Swedish mother and Eritrean father. A photography class in high school was her introduction to what would become her life’s work. Advice from a teacher “Use whatever you are,” became a compass to her storytelling. Now, a renowned photographer and filmmaker, her photojournalism focuses on the displaced and dislocated. “I think I gravitate to this because of my background, because I’ve never been attached to or had a really strong sense of my own cultural background,” she expressed in a conversation with Alexis Stember Coulter of the Adorama Learning Center. “I feel very connected to a strong sense of otherness. So whenever I come across a community that is a little bit outside the bigger society, or is a bit on the fringe...I relate to that very strongly.”