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ARISE 100 Women: Dr Johnnetta B Cole

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Words Bim Adewunmi

Dr Johnnetta B Cole is the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in the US.

What drives you?

I am driven by two powerful notions: the first is that I must be of service. As the saying goes, doing for others is the rent you must pay for your room on earth. Secondly, I am driven by a sense of responsibility to contribute to ongoing efforts to bring an end to racism, sexism and all other systems of inequality. Education and art can be powerful instruments in this effort in my country and around the world.

What do you see as the future of Africa?

Africa is the cradle of humanity, the place where humankind began, and I think Africa's future is intricately tied up with the future of the rest of the world. This basic reality is echoed in a saying that can be heard in many different languages across the continent of Africa: 'I am because you are, you are because I am'. Dr Martin Luther King put it this way: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Why is art, and heritage art specifically, important to the future of Africa?

Like the message of Sankofa, an Adinkra [symbol] of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, there is an expression among African Americans that says: 'you can't know where you are going if you don't know where you have been'. Traditional or heritage art can tell us a great deal about African people's diverse and dynamic cultures during earlier times. That knowledge can help us to more clearly understand the current realities and the future of Africa's people.

What are the main misconceptions when it comes to women in your industry?

The main misconceptions about women in the world of art are that all of the great artists of the world are men, and that women cannot serve as well as men at the helm of art institutions.

What are the challenges to being in the arts?

Being in the arts is a serious challenge when the arts are not fully valued. For example, in my country, when school budgets are tight, courses in the arts are the first to be eliminated from the curriculum. In many countries the phrase 'a starving artist' speaks to the fact that it can be extremely difficult to make a living as an artist. But I must add that despite the challenges, being in the arts can be a source of enormous satisfaction and joy.

What advice do you have for anyone starting our in the arts?

Be sure that art is your passion. If it is, then you must follow it. Being creative, which is at the heart of being an artist, requires hard work. You must be willing to do the work. Find mentors who are in the arts and learn from them.

In boardrooms and parliaments, on television and the stage, women are increasingly making their presence felt across Africa and on the world stage. The inaugural ARISE 100 list champions just some of the remarkable women shaping modern Africa today.

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