During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part 1 Blog post, I present the course description. Part 2 elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part 3 focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part 4 investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part 5 explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part 6 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. Part 7 focuses on the class theme: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities—Beti Ellerson
African women have been involved in the myriad areas of cinema since Africans became active participants in this arena in the 1950-60s. Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class followed the evolution, tendencies and trends from the pioneering women to the present generation.
One of the objectives of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema is to follow the evolution of African women in all spheres of cinematic practice, trace the diverse activities and assess trends and tendencies. The African Women in Cinema Blog has been an important outlet in this regard.
While earlier blog posts cover current information of the time, I have continued to update the posts to reflect current activities and tendencies of the moment.
For this theme, the class drew from a collection of articles published on the Blog in order to trace a timeline of African women in cinema:
The selection of articles that focus on women in cinema in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal reveals by the updated information on the blog post, that there is a whirlwind of activity on the continent and the African Diaspora.
And this indicates as well, that I have much to do to include articles about the many other countries where there is an increasingly visible presence of women: Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, to name a few; and the most glaring absence is in North Africa, where there has always been an important tradition of women in cinema.
Having said this, I will also note that these points were incorporated in the class discusion, for the aforementioned reason as well as to emphasise the important role that research and written sources have in the dissemination of information, and the production of knowledge and ideas. And thus, everyone has a role to play—filmmakers, organisers, scholars/critics, and the many other stakeholders. For instance in the article on the evolution of Senegalese women in cinema we learn about the pioneer feminist journalist Annette Mbaye d’Erneville who has dedicated her life to the promotion of women, culture and cinema. The women of the first generation of filmmakers in Burkinabe cinema were students at the historic film school INAFEC. Similarly, women were at the forefront of the two emblematic Burkina-based film organisations of the continent: FESPACO and FEPACI. In Kenya, women were among the first generation of filmmakers and were pioneers of Kenyan cinema.
I underscored, as well, the significance of a historiography of African women in cinema. And thus to talk about pioneer filmmaker Safi Faye of Senegal is to also continue on the timeline to the present generation of Senegalese women: Fatou Kandé Senghor, Angèle Diabang, Dyana Gaye, Marie Ka, Rama Thiaw and the list goes on
When looking at trends and tendencies one observes how the evolution in technology—especially the digital—has in many ways been a game changer; and perhaps even more significant in terms of critical mass, the phenomenal shift in communication as a result of the Internet—social media, video sharing, streaming. These myriad strategies allow a visibility that was unimaginable even a decade ago.
While most films by African women are not readily available or accessible to the general public, the possibility of viewing excerpts has offered an invaluable tool in the art/film/visual culture classroom. For instance, the Vlog, a component of the Centre, is a compilation of listings of film excerpts and even entire films, and in the case of YouTube, categorized by theme:
Some of the questions probed in class: how do themes of the 1970s compare to those of the 1990s, of today in the 2010s? Is there a shift? Have the questions changed? Are issues problematized differently?
I was invited to give a talk in May 2014 during which I discussed the emergence of a “girlfriend” genre in African women’s cinematic practice, a “Sex and the City” à l’africaine of sorts (a topic which I plan to explore on the African Women in Cinema Blog soon). I showed a clip of the film Playing Warriors (2011) by Rumbi Katedza as an example. During the Q&A afterwards I was asked whether I observed a tendency in filmmakers of this generation to stray from the more politically-committed filmmaking of the earlier generation. To which I stated in the case of Rumbi Katedza, that she could not be typecast, she has made critically engaging films such as Asylum (2007) and The Axe and the Tree (2011) made before and after the aforementioned film.
Could one attribute differences or changes to the emergence of the "global village", where women like Rumbi Katedza are influenced by the westernization/globalization that has overtaken the world? Where women like Lupita Nyong’o of Kenyan parents, born in Mexico and studied in the United States was recently awarded a coveted Oscar?
I argue that these movements and peregrinations have always existed as it relates to professional African women. Thèrése Sita Bella of Cameroon, who is on record as the first African woman to make a film in 1963, studied and lived in Paris. As did Annette Mbaye d’Erneville as early as 1947, followed later by Safi Faye in the late 1960s—where she still keeps residence today. Therefore, the notion of the transnational African filmmaker is not a contemporary phenomenon; the problematization of a hybrid identity is not a recent practice nor is the search for identity in the interstices of the western/African dichotomy. These are important questions to probe and they warrant in depth research.
The above theme was explored further in a later session under the title: Global Diaspora, Transnational, with a focus on Senegalese Katy Lena Ndiaye (Awaiting for men, which featured the women mural painters of Oualata), Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, and the environment-focused work of performance artist Julie Djikey Kim from Congo-Kinshasa. In preparation for the presentation of the works of Katy Lena Ndiaye, Wanuri Kahiu and Julie Djikey Kim, the readings included: "Ozonisation", performance art by Julie Djikey, Katy Lena Ndiaye's walls of women, women's words: Interview by Hassouna Mansouri and analysis by Mohamadou Mahmoun Faye, and Wanuri Kahiu: Afrofuturism and the African as well as the 15 minute TEDX talk: Wanuri Kahiu TEDx Forum On Afrofuturism In Popular Culture .
In this session, the themes globality, transnational, and diaspora were also problematized by probing the positionality of the gaze, and returning to a discussion of an earlier post, of voice, of whose story is being told.
Senegalese-born Katy Lena Ndiaye who grew up in France and currently lives in Belgium, focuses her camera on women from Mauritania. Frustrated with the recurrent visual representation, albeit beautiful, that she had seen of these women and their walls, (see Margaret Courtney-Clarke, African Canvas), Katy had a desire to give them voice. During the class session we reflected on the notion of an external visual gaze, asking the question, how is Katy Lena Ndiaye’s gaze different from Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s?
Wanuri Kahiu, who was born in Kenya and resides there, studied at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) film school. The English-language film Pumzi, which means breathe in Kiswahili, appeals to a Western audience entrenched in science fiction, new technologies and all things futuristic. Where is Wanuri Kahiu’s gaze situated? To whom is she speaking? In the United States, Pumzi has been framed within the discourse of Afrofuturism. However, Wanuri Kahiu states that it was only after making the film, which has become popular because of this categorization, did she become familiar with the concept. To what extent has this label appropriated Wanuri Kahiu’s original intent, which was to reflect on the environment, about sacrifice, about African storytelling, about local histories and inspirations? Whose story is Pumzi relaying?
Julie Djikey uses new technologies to disseminate her ideas, stories that talk about Kinshasa, a city that is deeply connected to the vagaries of globalization. The popularization of her Ozonization performance was in large part due to the photographic work of Pascal Maitre for National Geographic. Julie Djikey, nonetheless, has localized the practice of Performance art and has brought environmental issues to the Kinshasa public. Where is Julie Djikey’s gaze situated?
Two student reflections:
Examining the origins and development of African women in cinema in various African countries is the best demonstration of the fact that African women in cinema is not a monolith. The motives and experiences of women filmmakers and cultural producers have varied through space and time…As the material and social foundations for a cinema culture develop across Africa, local and continental filmmakers are using the medium to stake out unique cultural identities and transform communities (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).
So, where are these gazes situated? I would argue, globally. However, the question is complicated, because while some works may seek to reach other audiences, they are firmly rooted in an African setting or heritage. Yet somehow, these women are not limited to or limited by their ties to Africa. Their transnational experience allows them as cultural producers to embrace a wide range of stories and genres. Their goal is the same: to work toward a global view, a global impact, yet never forgetting their African roots and the importance of their heritage (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
By Beti Ellerson, September 2014