The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience – 500 years of Women’s Self Portraits by Jennifer Higgie (Orion), £20.

Saffron Swire

The Mirror and the Palette is an enrapturing cultural and autobiographical history of female self-portraiture, as told by one of the world’s most well-respected art critics, Jennifer Higgie. The editor-at-large at Freize takes us on a 500-year odyssey through a cross-sectional study of female artists. The book is arranged thematically to enable Higgie to escape the restrictions of history and intertwine a parade of women between overlapping moods and themes: Allegory, Smile, Easel, Hallucination, Translation and Solitude.

The book begins with Catharina van Hemessen’s Self-portrait at the Easel, 1548 and finishes with Alice Neel’s Self Portrait, 1980. The stark contrast between the two portraits shows the power of half a century in revolutionising female self-portraiture, from painting yourself as young, pure and virginal to unashamedly old, raw, and saggy-breasted. Higgie charters this progress through 20 other case studies in the book. Some you may recognise (Frida Kahlo, Angelica Kauffman, Artemisia Gentileschi), and some may not (Helene Schjerfbeck, Nora Heysen, Rita Angus).

Higgie admits that her choice of artists was personal, admitting that history is awash with plenty more accounts of self-portraiture. She was wise to deploy this disclaimer, as otherwise, an unwitting reader may have the impression that women artists only came to the fray in the mid-to-late 20th century..

Although something similar has been done before (see Frances Borzello’s Looking at Ourselves: Self-portraits of women, 1998), The Mirror & the Palette gives an important V-sign to an art history so dominated by these artist’s brothers, fathers and lovers. In curating such a cast of brilliant female artists – many who went through hell and high water  – Higgie examines the  artist’s use of portraiture to make sense of the world, through the subject they know best – themselves.

I Am A Girl From Africa by Elizabeth Nyamayaro (Simon and Schuster), £20.

Alice Crossley

Elizabeth Nyamayaro’s memoir traces the life of one extraordinary woman as she seeks to make her home-continent proud and ends up changing the world along the way.

The book begins in a small village in Zimbabwe, where a young Elizabeth Nyamayaro has collapsed after three days without food and drink due to a drought and food shortages. On the brink of starvation, she is saved by a mysterious woman in a blue uniform who Nyamayaro later realises is a UNICEF aid worker. The experience changes young Nyamayaro’s life course as she becomes determined to follow in her saviour’s footsteps and work for the United Nations. 

Faced with unthinkable challenges and working relentlessly to support her family, achieve an education and move to London, Nyamayaro’s resilience pays off as she goes on to fulfil her dreams and change millions of lives. Eventually achieving a role with the United Nations (UN) she travels the world involving herself in endless humanitarian campaigns raising awareness of HIV and AIDS across Africa, launching a maternal mortality initiative that benefits 10.2 million women globally, and being a key player in the launch of the UN’s HeForShe campaign; a solidarity movement for gender equality. 

The inspiring memoir is the tale of a girl from Africa’s incredible inner strength and brilliance but it is also a “love letter” to Africa. Punctuated by African proverbs, the chapters are an ode to the people in Nyamayaro’s life; the family, friends and mentors that help her chase her dreams and make a difference. Her story is “a beautifully woven African tapestry”, that defies all expectations and breaks endless glass ceilings. 

I Am A Girl From Africa is published on Tuesday 20 April.