Celebrating Women Activists through art: Mick O’Dea’s inspirational visit to Tanzania

Ambassador of Ireland in Tanzania, Mary O’Neill (left) and Getrude Mongella during her live portrait painting with Mick O’Dea.

Portraiture has been the focus of artistic exchange and collaboration in Tanzania in recent weeks with the residency of visiting Irish artist, Mick O’Dea. The artist is known for his portraits of prominent public figures, both historical and present day, in Ireland, Europe and the US.

In Tanzania, O’Dea has been working alongside local artists in Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo and Arusha to explore portraiture-as-performance. O’Dea interacts with his seated subject throughout the session, and it is the immediacy of this interaction, and the dynamic that it fosters, which allows the portrait to emerge as the “by-product” of the trust created between artist and subject.

Mick O’Dea live painting Gertrude Mongella at the Irish Ambassador’s residence.

These exchanges occur within a broader dynamic in which the audience is invited to both observe and participate, question and comment. It is this open space and vibrancy of interactions which informs O’Dea’s work, and energises a creative process which fuses portraiture and performance art.

 Mick O’Dea, student and entrepreneur Sandra Ruhizi (second left) and Tanzanian artists at Nafasi Art space.

While in Tanzania O’Dea has painted an average of one portrait a day in Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Bagamoyo. In Dar es Salaam, he has worked with Nafasi Art Space and Rangi Gallery, while Arusha brought him to Lolibondo Boma and Oromba Ward, and Bagamoyo to the College of Arts. O’Dea has described his time in Tanzania as a “practical exchange of skills and approaches through demonstration” while sharing experience with Tanzanian artists including Evarist Chikawe, Amani Abeid, Masoud Kibwana and Raza Mohamed amongst others.

 Mick O’Dea, youth and women advocate Diana Ninsiima (standing second left) and Tanzanian artists at Rangi Gallery.

Within portraiture-as-performance, the question of who gets to have their portrait taken is also interrogated. Working with the Embassy of Ireland in Dar es Salaam, O’Dea reached out to notable women activists in Tanzania to sit for the series of portraits. The timeliness of this spotlight on women activists will not be lost on readers, falling as it does during the international campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

14 portraits of prominent women activists have been created by O’Dea thus far, with further portraits created by Tanzanian artists who painted alongside the artist during the sessions.

O’Dea’s portraits were displayed at the end of his residency during a live portraiture-as-performance event at the Irish Ambassador’s Residence on 28th November.

Mick O’Dea paints Maasai activist Rose Njilo in Lolibondo Boma, Arusha, Tanzania.

The sitter on the night? Gertrude Mongella – educator, defender of women’s rights, politician, diplomat and Secretary-General of the 4th UN Conference on Women in Beijing, Mama Beijing. A fitting conclusion to a residency which confirmed the power of portraiture in recognising women’s activism.