HARARE, ZIMBABWE – ‘La Femme Noire Est Belle – Black Woman is Beautiful’ reads a plaque mounted on a wall, along with an array of figurative women clad in hip clothing, some in afros, others walking runways and stepping out of luxury vehicles. Illustrations of black women by French artist Nicholle Kobi embellish the reception and garden area of The Sp_ace, a restro-lounge in Harare on this day.
Friendship, love, identity, and high fashion are some of the themes explored in Kobi’s Exhibition, which draws largely from the daily experiences of black women. “It’s really about humanizing the black woman..we have to humanize ourselves” says Kobi, speaking candidly about her work. Navigating life as a black woman living in Paris, and realizing that there were not enough illustrations of black women on the Internet, compelled Kobi to channel her work towards celebrating black women.
Born in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 38-year-old Kobi has lived in France from the age of 3 and identifies as Afro-Parisian, an identity that is often met with a suspicious gaze. On a recent Instagram post, Kobi chronicles disappointment at the reaction to her pronouncement of being Parisian, and asks why it seems more acceptable to be white and South African as opposed to being black and Parisian. “People feel like I am racist, even black people are not ready to see that you can be black in France”, says Kobi. However, Kobi has come to realize that the answer is not black and white but lies in the deconstruction of colonial narratives.
Categorization of blackness is one of the unfortunate residues of colonisation according to Kobi. “In Europe, we have different categories of being black, we have people who are born there, people who arrived as a kid, and those who arrived recently, we are divided”, she says.
For 33-year-old Tafadzwa Zvobgo-a Zimbabwean student who has lived in Paris for the past 5 years pursuing her doctorate degree- the complexity is taken up a notch by further differentiating Francophone from Anglophone Africans. Zvobgo says she constantly has to “link” her identity to her colonial context, to make sense of her French spoken with an “English accent”.
Kobi’s illustrations work to confront and reverse sold narratives as well as binaries that place women in one of two spaces along racial lines, her work contrasts anomalies such as high fashion and caregiving and corporate yet hip black professionals.
According to World Population Review, France follows a “color-blind” policy in line with a law passed in 1872 that does not permit carrying out census distinguishing citizens along racial lines. “You have to be French, you are not black, you are not African French” says Kobi. Illustrating black women is also Kobi’s way of gaining her power back. “For me..drawing only black women and in Paris is a kind of resistance..to show that I am an African descendent..and I am here in France”, she says.
The impact of Kobi’s work is starting to take root. Some dark-skinned women have approached Kobi to thank her for her work saying “I didn’t know I was beautiful”, she says.
Through her illustrations, Kobi intends to help eliminate the distancing that often occurs amongst Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora, to help promote the idea that no one is more African than the other.
“We have to stick together” says Kobi.