18 October 2010 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Gender in the arts

August has been women’s month in South Africa and I am writing a lot about women as a consequence. This in itself is a really telling comment - because it means that writing about women isn’t perhaps part of our usual discourse in the world of arts and entertainment. And that’s exactly what we were discussing with Ceri Moelwyn-Hughes, whose work on the discourse of gender in music as performance and its representation in popular culture - is almost as unique in South Africa as it is important.

Ceri is a saxophonist, music teacher and academic whose research has been informed by her own experience as a musician - and particularly as an instrumentalist - where her gender places her in a minority. She’s spent the last few years interviewing women musicians and music industry professionals about their experiences as professional musicians.

How do we write about women musicians? What do we note? What do we ignore? What kinds of stories do we tell? And do we tell them often enough?

What she’s found is revealing and I hope that once she’s finished writing up her results, it will be widely circulated and discussed in South Africa. In my opinion, not enough of these conversations take place. This may be because the idea of ‘feminism’ invokes negative connotations (among women and men) or, quite simply, because we just don’t notice or think to question the status quo. Perhaps it’s because we’re often challenged if we do so and are worried about being labelled in ways that will jeopardise our careers in what is still a male dominated industry?

Her fascinating research aside, what struck me about Ceri was the respectful, open and honest way she was able to explore a number of thorny issues - without passing judgement, making grand assumptions, or excluding contradictions. Her genuine interest in lived experience is something many journalists can also learn from as we find ways to document the art and artists of our time and the social context (and content) that informs their work. How do we write about women musicians? What do we note? What do we ignore? What kinds of stories do we tell? And do we tell them often enough?

This discussion took place with the context of a Standard Bank Joy of Jazz five-day practical workshop for women arts writers, run by Gwen Ansell, music/jazz writer and journalism trainer. The workshop was entitled “The Lady Porcupine arts journalism workshop”. The workshop title honours Johanna Pahlane, who wrote for Bantu World under the pen-name ‘Lady Porcupine’ in the 1930s while also directing the Merry Makers vaudeville troupe. Little more is known about her - and that, at the end of the day - makes Ceri’s point rather well.

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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