Tina Ramos Ekongo - Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!

Tina Ramos Ekongo’s commission Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! celebrates five black and brown South African women who fought against apartheid. Their stories have either been under-known, under-heard or misrepresented. Umfazi, Owesifazane and Vrou means “Woman” in isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans respectively. These are three of the most spoken languages in South Africa, whose Constitution recognises eleven official languages.

Tina Ramos Ekongo –  image supplied by artist.

Tina is a Spanish-Equatorial Guinean figurative visual artist, illustrator and cultural integration workshop facilitator. Born in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, Tina grew up in Spain, between Madrid and Zaragoza. She moved to the UK in 2011 and has lived and worked in the north west of England for much of this time. In recent years, Tina has developed her signature portraiture style, intentionally reminiscent of 17th Century European portraits of Royal figures yet forefronting pan-continental artistic portrayals of African leaders.

Tina is influenced by traditional murals that can be found on the frontage of African barbershops and hair salons as well as by the stylisation of campaigns created for grassroots health campaigns across many countries on the African continent. Tina credits Congolese artist, Cheri Samba, as being a formative influence on her personal style and heralds Mexican artist, Frida Khalo, as the inspiration for her feminist and political contextualisations. Tina states “ I paint only Black women because through my work I am trying to reflect, in a powerful statement, the essence of their fearless spirit.

Black Queen I Young Lubaina Himid I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2021). Acrylic and Gold Leaf on Cardboard.

Creating Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!, Tina chose to paint portraits of Amina Cachalia, Annie Silinga, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Rahima Moosa and Ida Mntwana. For Tina, it was the fact that these women took to the streets in demonstrations and spoke out publicly against injustice whilst at the same time facilitating caregiving roles within their own families and/or communities that inspired her to paint their portraits in the hope that their representations in portraiture would provoke conversations around traditional and contemporary notions of “women’s roles” as well as provide an impetus for women of all ages, across the African continent and in the UK, to take more forward-facing roles in their local and wider communities.

Tina says,  “I chose these women to feature in my series of portraits, to highlight their contributions to the struggle for freedom in South Africa and to inspire others to become activators for positive change across society.” Tina was commissioned by us to creatively explore and respond to lived experience of race-based injustice and imagine new futures, linking to activism against apartheid and related themes. Tina’s series ‘Black Queens’ (see “Young Lubaina Hamid” pictured) was similarly foundational in the sense of portraying black and brown female figures who were changemakers in their own particular fields and who continue to provide inspiration for the creation of new and positive futures.

When we talked about what drew her to applying for this commission, she said, 

‘I have always been moved by the stories surrounding apartheid and the injustice suffered by the victims. Before getting involved with this project, I was already researching different figures who fought the oppressive system. As a feminist artist who focus is on portraying black and brown women, I started to look into the female figures that had an important and decisive role in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. It is important to me that the lives and the stories of these women are known by everyone.

Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! I clockwise from top left; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Rahima Moosa, Amina Cachalia, Annie Silinga and Ida Mntwana I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Following her research, Tina was moved to include these particular five women due to their commitment to a just, free and peaceful South Africa, and whose narratives resonated with her personally and professionally:

Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! I Amina Cachalia I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Amina Cachalia: “She came from a family of political activists which moved me to make her part of the project. Her unique friendship with Nelson Mandela, her roles in the ANC mobilising the Defiance Campaign,  in the leadership of the ANC’s Women’s League, a founder member of the Women’s Progressive Union, as well as a leader of the Federation of South African Women, made her stand out as an important feminist role model. She believed in the importance of women’s education”.

Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! I Annie Silinga I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Annie Silinga: She was one of the leaders in the anti-pass campaign in apartheid South Africa who fought for better living conditions for her family and her country. Her kindness and caring nature stood out as important characteristics, often overlooked as political qualities. That she achieved this with only a few years of primary education is all the more remarkable.


Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! I Ida Mntwana I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Ida Mntwana: “Ida was a dressmaker, considered a ‘normal’ job for a ‘normal’ woman, but she was also an activist and an early President of both the African National Congress Women’s League and the Federation of South African Women. In 1952 she led the Germiston women’s march, a much less known predecessor of the 1956 march to Pretoria, that she co-led with others including Amina Cachalia and Rahima Moosa”

Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! I Rahima Moosa I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Rahima Moosa: “A member of the Transvaal Indian Congress and later, the ANC, Rahima played a significant role in the organisation of the Congress of the People, which led to the development of the Freedom Charter. An identical twin, she reportedly often confused the security services by swapping identities with her sister. After her death, her family continued to fight for a free and multicultural South Africa, upholding a pledge made by Rahima”.


Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou! Winnie Madikizela-Mandela I Tina Ramos Ekongo (2022) I Acrylic and textile on cardboard

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: “Perhaps one of the most notable figures of the anti-apartheid movement, her story has been told and understood in many different ways. As the ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela it has often been forgotten that she was a committed activist before their marriage and she continued to fight the system all her life and yet her delivery of that activism strongly questioned”. 

The five new portraits created for this commission are in mixed-media of acrylic, African fabric and collage on cardboard, with the women depicted wearing garments and accessories typical of different cultural and ethnic groups predominant in South Africa.

“I use cardboard as the principal medium, through it I portray beautiful and resilient black women, which serves as a juxtaposition on their undervalue in Western societies and their real value as pillars of their communities and force of change. Through painting them on cardboard, I give a new value to a disposable material and highlights the exquisite beauty of the black woman in her different shades.”

Portrait of Ida Mntwana in progress

The highlighting of the women’s African identity in her portraits was critical for Tina’s work and the use of Ankara fabric, sometimes referred to as African wax or Dutch wax, was an integral part of this method. The intensity of the colours and prints in the fabric remains strong due to the wax resistance technique used to print the textile, whether the wax fabrics have been handmade or manufactured by machine. This quality of resilience is significant and reflects the strengths of the women she has chosen to present.

Portrait of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in progress

Tina further explains, “fabric is a very important part of African cultures.  Across the continent, the patterns and colours are used to differentiate tribes, rites and ceremonies”. The colour ways within the fabric threads the portraits together and gives a balance and coherence to the artworks as a series and ultimately “represents the African identity for which these women were fighting for”.