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10 July 2009

The Female Body as Symbol of Change and Dichotomy: Conflicting Paradigms in the Representation of Women in African Film

African Women, the Body
and Representation in African Cinemas

Part 1

The Female Body, Culture and Space: The Female Body in African Cinema by Beti Ellerson

Part 2

The Female Body as Symbol of Change and Dichotomy: Conflicting Paradigms in the Representation of Women in African Film by Beti Ellerson

My first works on African women and cinema, which emerged in the mid-1990s reflected the tendencies of the time, focusing on the cinematic representation of women in African feature films, predominantly authored by men. At the same time, a specific focus on the female body similarly reflected the prevailing discourse during that period. The ideas formulated during the writing of these first works, concretized during the preparation in 1995 of my post-doctoral project on African Women in Cinema for the 1996-1997 academic year. In many ways, through these first studies, my desire to delve into the world of African women in cinema contextualized through framing foundational questions: In what ways do African women use "cinema"? What are their commonalities and differences? Is there an emergence of film criticism practices by African women indicative of African realities? How are African women going beyond dominant gazes (masculinist, white feminist, western) to visualize the specificities of Africa and its extended boundaries? What are African women's experiences in cinema?

Hence, to return to these first works provides a point of departure in which to follow the evolution of my work in African Women in Cinema Studies, during which so many of the above questions found answers. 


The Female Body as Symbol of Change and Dichotomy: Conflicting Paradigms in the Representation of Women in African Film

by Beti Ellerson


A version of this article appears in With Open Eyes: African Women and African Cinema, ed. Kenneth W. Harrow. Matatu 19, Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1997.


As medium of culture, the body delineates its use in daily life: in the ways one occupies space, the culturally specific ways that one’s body is carried, moved, and positioned, and in the ways it is adorned. Corporeal practices are conditioned by culture, social situations, and the environment, and are defined within those contexts.  How then are the body and corporeal practices interpreted and read in African cinema?  How do cinematic codes portray or betray cultural codes of corporeal practices and idioms within and outside African contexts? These are theoretical questions that are posed within the critical discourse that has developed in African cinema—a discourse emerging outside of dominant film theory and criticism, and going beyond mainstream feminist analysis of film and the extensive Euro-focused exploration of the female body.


In many ways it has been in quotidian activities and milieux that African filmmakers have constructed a film language, within its own rhythm and action for the body.  It has been in these representations as well that African filmmakers have drawn metaphors, made juxtapositions, and created symbolism bearing on the notions of tradition and modernity, and of what is African and western.


From the confrontation of African filmmakers with the dilemmas of western, post-, and neo-colonialism, have come the images of the westernized African woman, the prostitute, and the bourgeois wife.  These characters have been used at times as metaphors for the corruptive force of colonialist or European influences, and the concomitant spread of westernization; as symbols of conflict between African and European cultures; and of generational differences and tensions.  With the rise of African women in westernized contexts, images have evolved to represent the "new African woman," the "modern African woman," as well as the duality of the African woman confronting a dichotomous African/western paradigm. Various role types have emerged, such as the African career woman, seen in the secretary and teacher in Xala (Ousmane Sembene, 1974) and Sango Malo (Bassek Ba Kobhio, 1992); and the student; increasingly visible as symbol of change, and sign of tension between westernization and African conventional lifestyles and practices, and of generational conflicts in films such as Xala, Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1973) Djeli (Kramo-Lacine Fadika, 1981), Finye (Souleymane Cisse, 1982), Diankha-bi (Mahama Traore, 1969), Saikati (Anne Mungai, 1993) and Love Brewed in an African Pot (Kwaw Ansah, 1980. Co-wives within the institution of polygamy and the young woman as sexual interest of the "big man" have also been portrayed. They have often been used to challenge the African male bourgeoisie and their corrosive abuses of power in films such as Finye, Xala,  Bal Poussiere (Henri Duparc, 1988), La Vie est belle (Mgangura Mweze and Benoit Lamy, 1987) and Saaraba (Amadou Saalum Seck, 1988).


The prostitute has been employed metaphorically to symbolize the manner in which Africa has prostituted itself to the west or has been corrupted.  Ousmane Sembene's Guelwaar (1993) employs the prostitute character in juxtaposition with international aid, while Djibril Diop Mambety constructs a superb presentation of greed in Hyenes (1992).


One of the paradoxes of placing Africa within the Euro-defined continuum of tradition and modernity is that African cultures function simultaneously in both.  African filmmakers have effectively interpreted this simultaneity in their use of metaphor, juxtaposition, satire, and ridicule.  The transformation of African womanhood faced with the force of European aesthetic impositions has resulted in duality within African femininity.


Ousmane Sembene's Xala provides an interesting study of both the juxtaposition of different African women in the dichotomy of African and western, and the representational use of the female body as metaphor for change. It is perhaps to this film that the contrast between the "westernized" and "traditional" African woman is most often referred while the specific scene most representative of this dichotomy is that of co-wives Awa and Oumi at the wedding of their husband and his third wife.  When seated inside the bride's house, Awa, the first wife, is in the left half of the frame, dressed in heading covering and a elegant light yellow boubou, with a chewing stick in her mouth. Oumi, the second wife, is on the right half of the frame, dressed in a black sleeveless sheer dress, wearing a wig and sunglasses.  The contrast is both stunning and mocking. In this one scene, Sembene addresses and ridicules a range of issues; polygamy, co-espousal rivalry and the power between the wives, the effects of colonialism and westernization, and the duality in notions of femininity and womanhood. Sembene mockingly depicts a similar scene of westernized decadence in Mandabi (1968). While sitting with Dieng, the protagonist, the wife of Mbye, Dieng's nephew, is wearing sunglasses, coiffed in a western style wife and wearing a short skirt while painting her toenails.


Positioning the first two wives in Xala on opposing ends, one side a "traditional" woman and the other a caricature of westernization, Sembene engages a reading of the polarity of femininities. He constructs a framework within which to read the other three women of the film: the virgin bride, who is the third wife; the student, El Hadj's daughter, who is the Africa-centered new African woman; and the secretary.


In the beginning sequence of Touki Bouki, Mambety presents an excellent rendition of contrasting femininity and corporeal practices in the quotidian activities of Senegalese women, using Anta, the female protagonist and a student at the University of Dakar, as an oppositional figure.  The opening scene portrays her writing while seated in a chair at the table. She has her short hair uncovered and is dressed in pants and a jacket. In stark contrast, Anta's mother, who appears in the following scene, is seated on a low stool behind a table that displays various food staples. Dressed in a boubou, her hair covered with a mouchoir, she is cleaning her teeth with a chewing stick. As the camera remains fixed on her image, women in flowing boubous walk in and out of the frame. The contrasting corporeal practices and presentations of femininity are established within two different social contexts. Anta is a student at the university, a status that has been created outside of traditional African social conventions. As a result, she is allowed to be odd and defiant of traditions in much the same way as the student character Rama (played by the same actor, Myriam Niang) in Xala. Rama reveals the freedom of African women to choose their appearance: she is coiffed variously in a close-cropped hairstyle as well as tresses; and she dresses in a boubou, modish European-style pants and top, or African ensemble. In one of the closing sequences of Touki Bouki, Anta is on her lover's motorbike, visually echoing his image riding the motorbike in a previous scene. The closing sequence portrays Anta waiting to depart on the "Ancerville," a ship bound for France. In her "western" frocks, with pink hat, sunglasses and pants suit, she is in stunning contrast to the "rebel" student of the opening scene.


In Saikati, Anne Mungai constructs her eponymous student protagonist within a traditional Maasai setting. Though she is a student and speaks English, she continues to live within the conventions of the Maasai. It is during her move to Nairobi that she changes. The spectator witnesses this transformation from Maasai to westernized woman as the film details her new clothing, her change of make-up from face paint to lipstick, and her change of hairstyle from beaded headdress to wig. However, unlike other films in which the "westernized African woman" is shown to eagerly embrace her new role, in Saikati, the protagonist expresses her discomfort with European aesthetics and her preference for Maasai dress. The film ends with her choosing to return to her Maasai village, changing to her Maasai attire before reaching her home.


Ousmane Sembene's La Noire de...(1966) one of the rare interpretations of inter-racial, intra-gender tensions between women, dramatizes the relationship between an African domestic worker and her European female employer. While in Dakar, Diouana, the protagonist, comes to work in Senegalese attire, coiffed in a popular African hairstyle. When she accompanies her employers on vacation, she arrives in France in a polka-dot dress with a scarf around her head. Her attire becomes increasingly westernized, as through she is attempting to offset her humiliation as a domestic. While doing her tasks around the house she appears to be overly dressed with wig, ear-rings, necklace, high-heel shoes, and a French-style wig. It is at this point that Madame puts an apron around her waist. Though the clothes that Diouana wars are second-hand, given to her by Madame and establishing a visual neutrality between them, the apron becomes the distinguishing marker of Madame's authority and Diouana's subordination. Later the French woman becomes more and more uncomfortable with Diouana's dress and her resistance to working as a maid. She shouts at her: "Diouna take off those shoes, don't forget that you are a maid." She desperately seeks to maintain the signals of difference between them in terms of status, class and race.


In Senegal the visual delineation between them is not as important. The employer/maid relationship is clear, and the dominance is understood and automatically maintained. In France the difference is more diffused. Diouana's blackness, though a western marker of inferiority, is not sufficient to signify her role and purpose in the household. Other visual codes are need, such as the apron.


While the differences between the "westernized" African woman and the "traditional" woman are illustrated by dress and adornment, the contrasts are often depicted spatially, as can be seen in how the body is used. This includes women sitting on low stools and on the ground rather than sitting on western-style furniture; eating, napping, washing, and cooking and performing daily activities outdoors rather than in the confines of the interior of the house; or circulating on paved streets with high-rise buildings rather than on dirt roads near conventional housing. Films such as Mandabi, Ta Dona (Adama Drabo), 1991) Visages de Femmes (Desire Ecare, 1985), and Diankha-bi constrast the two groups of women in this manner. In Sango Malo the spatial difference is made by status or work and language. The teacher character Ngo Bangang dresses in western-style cloting and speaks French while the women who cultivate the land are dressed in African clothing and speak Bassa. Saikati portrays the African/westernized dichotomy through the spatial contrast of the Maasai village of the character Saikati and the Nairobi capital where she ventures with her westernized cousin Monica. Her environmental space is transposed from the Maasai plains into the busy, car-driven streets. The film's rhythm is reflected in the spatial shift as well, as we move from the slow pace of the village and rural setting to the noisy rhythm of the urban setting.


In Finzan (Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, 1986) the commonplace movement sequences read like a series of tableaux of quotidian activities of village women: a woman bends over a well pulling up a rope for water; a woman sitting on a low stool stands up and bends over to arrange wood for fire; a woman bends over as she bathes her two children who are stooping; a woman with a baby on her back is working at an oven facing another woman. The camera captures the movement of the baby's body to the rhythm of the woman; as she moves back and forward while working, there is a cut to a medium close-up of the woman and baby. Another sequence portrays a woman cutting wood. Three co-wives sit on the ground as they mourn over the death of their husband. A woman carries a bundle of wood on her heard. A low shot illustrates to women sitting on low stools with a young girl. A woman is seated while stirring porridge. A woman and young girl sleep together on a mat. The camera frames three women, Nanyuma, Fifi, and her mother, sitting at various heights inside a room. A woman sitting on a stool under a tree cleans rice while another sits further away; she stands and bends over to sweep. A woman lays her head on the lap of the woman who coifs her.


At several locations in Touki Bouki the camera stops as Anta continues along; the women serve as a text from which to read the body in relation to the unconventionality of the "new African woman," the student. As she passes, one may make a checklist of female corporeal practices: bunches of women stoop while washing clothes in a washing area; a young girl lowers a pail form her head and dumps its contents; young girls wait their turn in line to fill their buckets with water at the public water faucet; Anta meets her Aunt Oumi whose lips are tattooed and hair is coiffed in a Jamono Kura hairstyle. compared to the women in each of these scenes, Anta stands outside of their conventional femininity.


La noire de...unfolds within a filmic juxtaposition of the African and European body in both African and European/ westernized spaces. Sembene's treatment of these bodies is divided into three spatial contexts: the French urban areas of Dakar with the government buildings, high-rise apartments, paved streets, monuments, the university and bourgeois dwellings; the quartiers populaires, neighborhoods of the general population, with unpaved sidewalks and roads, less expensively constructed dwellings, outdoor activities, public watering spaces; and the Cote d'Azur, which Diouana observes upon her arrival, where the apartment of the French couple is located.


Diouana's dramatic saga is depicted in a series of scenes that generally take place in the French couple's living room as they entertain guests or relax. The scene where Diouana washes the dishes, the spatial focus that orients the eye towards her on the back of the right side of the frame, is deliberate. The living room, where the couple passes a great deal of time, occupies most of the frame, while the kitchen to its right, where Diouana spends her time, takes up only a small corner. This spatial division represents the psychological space in which Diouana lives; confined, shut out, and pushed aside. The contrast between the spatial boundaries oft he two areas of Dakar and the apartment in France is used cinematically to highlight Diouana's corporeal comportment. The small, confining and restricting space of the French apartment accentuates Diouana's ennui, interiority and dismay, compared to the gaiety and enthusiasm that she expresses when she is first employed by the French woman in Dakar where she was able to move freely about in the large house.


Sembene deliberately contrasts Diouana's African-adorned body to the French-style architecture of the Plateau. Diouana is wearing a Senegalese ensemble and head wrap as she searches for a job in the French-influenced section of Dakar. In perhaps one of the most stunning scenes in the film, Sembene superbly juxtaposes Diouana and Madame as they both walk together with their backs to the camera after having negotiated Diouana's employment.  The scene before their encounter spatially designates the power relations between the two.  While passing a parked Mercedes Benz to her left, Madame arrives to the right of the frame walking toward the area where the young Senegalese women are seated on the ground, waiting to be chosen for employment.  The composition of the scene is such that a wall separating the women from the upcoming Madame makes them unaware of each other, but visible to the spectator. It is a striking spatial representation of power and servility between European and African. Wearing sunglasses, Madame is dressed in skirt and jacket ensemble carrying a handbag; the Senegalese women are sitting on the ground dressed in Senegalese garments.


The spatial uses of the environment and geography in situating the body are particularly apparent when juxtaposing the rural and urban settings of Africa. Gaston Kabore's Zan Boko (1988) offers an excellent example of the parallel uses of the body in these settings. Through cuts and dramatically angled shots, the spectator goes in and out of contrasting rural and urban spaces that are within meters of each other. As urbanization encroaches upon the rural setting, the language changes from More to French; the sight of village people sitting on the ground and low stools, eating and preparing food outdoors, is followed by images of bourgeois settings with people sitting at a well-appointed table and dining in the interior of their expensive home. The rural dwellers are called peasants and viewed as backward. It is perhaps in this film that the process that distinguishes Africa as rural and traditional from the "west" as urban and modern is the most clearly read. The parallel action sharply delineates African and western codes.


In Finzan the rebellious acts of Bambara women are juxtaposed against those that have been repeated or enacted as commonplace situations. For instance, after Nanyuma's environment is established within the village where she participates in daily activities, she runs away to her mother's house to avoid marrying her deceased husband's brother, leaving her mother to be ousted by her father who considers his wife an accomplice. Upon her capture and return, she joins in the everyday life of the other women in her village. she runs away a second time to her brother-in-law's house, encountering a prowling lion on the way. She is harshly treated and returned by her brother-in-law with her hands and feet tied. Upon her return, she is again re-integrated into village life.


The women of the village insist on speaking to the chief, entering in the meeting place which is traditionally admissible only to men. As they sit together on the ground, this unprecedented event occurs without any change in the normal practices of the women. The discovery of Fifi's unexcised clitoris occurs in an encounter with her "rival" as they are both bathing. Their meeting is made to appear as a normal encounter between two young women of their age, and their dialogue is only audible to the viewer. This event is presented such a matter-of-fact way one wonders in what situation the two women would have their vulvae exposed to each other. By openly stating that the clitoris is the part of the body that makes a woman, Fifi challenges the women's notions of the purpose of the clitoris while confronting the village chief's authority over the women. The resistance to the conventions of women's roles in Bambara culture is not dramatically set off by these events within the mundane activities of quotidian life. It is not the change in aestheticization, corporeal practices, or the spatial environment that serves as the catalyst towards consciousness-raising, but rather the evolution that occurs from one generation to the next.


It is the various ways of looking at the "very pose of the subject," Roland Barthes asserts, "which prepare the reading of the signifieds of connotation." It is "because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification"[1] that a gesture, look or pose may project meaning. A hidden smile, puckered lips, a wide-eyed look of interest, and a titled head are coded signifiers, within western signs, that suggest seduction, flirtation, and an invitation to gaze. Film language constructs this look from coded signifiers of femininity, "sexiness," and sophistication which transfers to an African context imposing markers of western values. As the African female body acquires western accoutrements of hair care, fashion, or overall countenance the schism traditional;/ modern takes shape. In addition to the gaze of the photographic camera in its construction of femininity, "sexiness" and Euro-defined sophistication, cinematic language creates scopophilia through camera movement, flow of action, and changes in distance. This construct of exotica works especially within the codes that define women as traditional.


Saaraba and La Vie est belle raise the question of African versus western film language and cultural codes. they also engage a debate around the subject of the African female body in contemporary African films. In a scene of the opening sequence of Saaraba Lissa, the romantic interest of the protagonist Tamsir, lies on the ground as her fried coifs her hair. Tamsir arrives and greets his family after being away in France for seventeen years. As Lissa enters the frame responding to his salutations, she shows her newly coiffed hair with braided extensions pulled to one side over the shoulder. Though Seck apparently seeks to portray a young village woman engaged in commonplace activities in her everyday environment, the spectator is not convinced of the verisimilitude of Lissa's movements. The scene establishes Lissa as the love interest of the protagonist and an object to be ogled at, gazed upon and peeped at.


In a subsequent scene in two separate cuts, Lissa brings water to the soon-to-be rivals, the MP and Tamsir, kneeling beside them as they drink. The construction of this scene provides a pretext for a "western male gaze" to take in Lissa as they both drink the water. A cut to Lissa's back shows the details of her body motion; a second cut tot he MP, and then to Tamsir allows the spectator to observe the two men as they both ogle her. During Tamsir's visit to Lissa as she works at the river, she is displayed as her wet, sheering clothing clings to her body.


While sitting on the ground sewing on a manual machine, Lissa is in stark contrast to her mother who is seated in front of her. The contrast in their countenance and body attitude goes beyond generational differences. Though it is implied that her mother does not read French and is "traditional" there are no indications that show that Lissa has been socialized differently. Yet she illustrated a similar urban western "sophistication" as Tamsir who has spent years in France, is literate in French, and easily circulates in the urbanized areas of Senegal. Lissa is constructed as a young, "traditional" village woman within a western male gaze. There is a "sexiness" and seductiveness that seems well out of place in the village. This construction reveals the incongruities that emanate from the exoticization of African corporeality.


A similar pattern is visible in La Vie est belle. During the opening sequence of the film, the camera marks the presence of Kabibi as she is regarded by Kuru, the protagonist of the film played by the popular Zairian musician Papa Wemba. She is wearing a school uniform, is coiffed in braided and carrying books. Throughout the film she is seen performing tasks such as pounding millet in an enclosed compound where she lives with her mother, and sitting on a low stool while preparing food with her cousin. Whole carrying a basket on her head as she passes a wrought iron fence, Kabibi is framed as a image to be gazed upon. In the concluding sequence, a westernized rendition of "African magic" is depicted in a trance scene as Kabibi's face is spotted with paint, her tresses hanging to her shoulder and partially covering her face. These images exoticize a "westernized" African woman who "dabbles in tradition."


In both Saaraba and La Vie est belle culturally specific female corporeality is appropriated and eroticized outside of its contextual milieu. We find the same "male gaze" as that which is so pervasive in western films, fixed upon the African female body, just as colonial images of the colonized female both exoticized and eroticized the "native" woman in her "natural" habitat.[2] What marks these images is the employment of western codes of femininity and the female body in the representation of African women. Within in the images that signify African conventions of corporeal practices and dress, there are those that are in closer proximity to western notions of the European ideal and those on the other end of the continuum toward the African stereotyped as traditional.


It is within this continuum that African films have been able to construct a traditional African woman within western film language and codes. As a counter-reading to this tendency one must consider the importance of using specific African cultural modalities as the paradigm in the exploration of the African female body in filmic representation.




[1] Roland Barthes: "The Photographic Message." A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 201.


[2] Cf. Malek Alloula: The Colonial Harem. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). Malek Alloula explores the French construction of the colonized woman.

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