During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part I Blog post, I present the course description. Part II elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part III focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part IV investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part V explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part VI examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle–Beti Ellerson
How to explore the myriad issues that touch the lives of African women in one course, during one semester? How to probe the intersectionality of experiences? Under the theme “intersecting identities”, the complexities of issues regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality and nationality unfold rather organically. This process attests to the interdisciplinary practices of African women artists who work at the intersection of a plurality of experiences.
The readings and visual materials for the theme “evolving racialized identities” encompassed:
Reading: Negotiating bi-cultural and mixed-race identities in African women’s films , Claude Haffner: "Black Here, White There" | "Footprints of My Other", Eliachi Kimaro: A Lot Like You, Interview with Ngozi Onwurah in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa in Film, Video, Television by Beti Ellerson. Visuals: The Body Beautiful by Ngozi Onwurah, excerpts from Children of the White man and The Place in between by Sarah Bouyain and excerpts from Footprints of My Other by Claude Haffner.
In the works of the selected filmmakers one may find intersecting themes on nationality, racialized identity, especially as it relates to the search for self in the interstices of “in-betweenness”, as well as personal stories of womanhood and femininity, of national identity and transnational hybridity. And the experiences of three of the women, the very private space of mother: Ngozi Onwurah weaves in her intimate story of her white mother, themes of desire, femininity, ageism, breast cancer. Having grown up in France in the region of her late French father, Claude Haffner returns to Congo, her birthplace and the country of her mother, with intentions to cover certain politico-economic issues. It, however, becomes her story, of her return and her experiences with her Congolese family. Sarah Bouyain, also of mixed-race, reveals an unsettling part of colonial history. Through the story of her grandmother also of mixed race one learns of the practice of forced concubinage during a period when colonial officials took African women as live-in partners (oftentimes forcibly). Bouyain’s fiction film, The Place in between relates the return of Amy to Burkina Faso in search of her mother after the death of her French father one year before.
U.S.-born Eliachi Kimaro, of Tanzanian and Korean parents, went in search of her roots in Tanzania, the birthplace of her father. And like Claude Haffner and Sarah Bouyain, she discovered a family history both fascinating and disturbing.
The readings and visual materials for the theme “evolving sexual identities” included:
Reading: For an endogenous critique of representations of African lesbian identity in visual culture and literature--interview with Frieda Ekotto, "Homosexuality is not unafrican; what is unafrican is homophobia": Interview by Olivier Barlet with Wanuri Kahiu about her film “Jambula Tree”, and Marie Kâ : L’Autre Femme | The Other Woman. The film Difficult Love co-directed by Zanele Muholi and featuring her work was viewed outside of class in preparation for discussion.
My interview with Frieda Ekotto provided an important context to the theme on same-sex relationships among women in Africa—especially as an area of research; in the same way, Zanele Muholi’s visual works document the lives and experiences of black South African lesbians.
By employing the concept of intersectionalism, the complexity of African women’s identities came to the forefront. It was very exciting to see how the students connected the diverse texts, films, visuals and themes.
Some student reflections:
Instead of allowing her identity to be constructed as a single story, photographer Zanele Muholi did not simply want to be a face within a story created about her, she wanted rights and ownership to her own, multilayered story. Her identity, as she states, is so much more than a single word: lesbian. She is a woman, she is African, she is part of a family and she is an artist (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).
Women are their bodies, and then mothers are their motherhood. Filmmaker Marie Kâ approaches this subject in her Senegalese film “L’Autre Femme”. In an interview with Olivier Barlet, Kâ expressed her desire to challenge "the Senegalese view that women are no longer interesting once they’ve given birth and gone through physical changes due to aging.” I would argue that this view is a largely global concept, and manifests itself in the desexualization of older women. The mother in “The Body Beautiful” is seen as a person without desires, and her whole sexual identity (even memories of her younger life with her husband) are erased by society (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
Zanele Muholi’s photography and film address the underlying human inclination to love another human and they depict the humanity of the subjects. They offer a view of the other as something so recognizable to the viewer. The straight viewer can relate to the feelings of love and intimacy, even if it takes a form different than their own. I was also very impressed with the role of community and, in particular, family as a source of empowerment. Zanele Muholi’s sister spoke of the way that once her mother condoned Zanele’s sexuality, she extended protection to her that her brothers and others in the community could not transgress. In that way, her love for her daughter marked the starting point of a changing norm that created a space for Zanele to be herself and empowered her in her life (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).
Another connection that I draw between many of the women discussed in class this week is that they use their platform to bridge the gap between the cultures that make up their identity. When looking at filmmaker, Eliachi Kimaro, I was in awe of her ability to seek information about her father’s ethnic group through documentary and embrace the women of her culture and their stories in relation to her own existence. Not only was this a revealing process for her but she was embraced by her aunts and able to connect herself to multiple generations of Tanzanian history (Rian Matthews '16, Denison University).
Filmmaker Claude Haffner, in her film “Black Here, White There,” also examines the contrasting identities that influenced her early life, in that her identity was bridged between her African mother and her European father. The formation of her identity as a woman therefore constantly hovered between the different interpretations of class, gender and custom between Africa and Europe. Thus when exploring her mother’s experiences as an African woman, she identified her feelings of “never belonging.” Communicating with her African cousins, she felt identified as a sort of “white outsider,” with European and “light skin” privilege. Thus she states that she views her life as an extraordinary journey, exploring and bridging the gaps between Africa and Europe, black identity and white identity, and how such exploration and discovery factors into her identity as a global woman. (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).
By Beti Ellerson, September 2014