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10 July 2009

The Female Body, Culture and Space: The Female Body in African Cinema

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, Culture and Space: The Female Body in African Cinema (originally published in Ecrans d’Afrique/African Screen N° 11 – 1995)

The cinematic use of the African female body.

Cultural specificities of the body in African space are particularly manifest in visual representation and should be accorded more importance in African film analysis. 

The mother with child, the woman as carrier, the woman mortaring, and female aesthetics and corporeality have been dominant female images that have attained iconic significance in historical African representation. The mother represented conventionally as nurturer has also been symbolically portrayed as a carrier of tradition. As African filmmakers confront the issues of westernization, post-, and neo-colonialism, the student, westernized African woman, prostitute, and bourgeois wife have also emerged. These images also engage a discussion of the body and culture. Many films portray the African body within its natural milieu where the body has largely been the spatial focus. Even in the cases where the African body is constructed outside traditional corporeal practices, these concepts highlight the importance of culture in the construction of the body and its uses in space. The use of opposing body attitudes and corporeal practices are a recurring theme in African film often used in the juxtaposing images of “westernized” and African or “modern” and “traditional.” Similarly, these elements make up the basis for the cultural language within which the African body communicates and relates. In many ways it has been in the quotidian uses of the body that African film makers have constructed film language, rhythm, and action.

Mother with child

The mother with child icon, so dominant in African sculptural expressions, has been used in commonplace scenes in African films. In historical African female representation, children may be seen as extensions of the African female body by the manner in which they are attached to the body. The baby is put on the back of the mother by wrapping it in a cloth and attaching the cloth to the front of the body at the waist. The baby remains in this position as the woman sits, stands, walks, and works, becoming part of the woman’s body and shape. This image and that of the pregnant woman have been used symbolically as well. In Gaston Kaboré’s Zan Boko an opening scene frames the profile of the pregnant wife of the protagonist. At the end of her third trimester she begins to experience problems. As the newborn is symbolic of the future, the trouble that the pregnant woman experiences may symbolize some problematic moments ahead. Zan Boko which means “the place where the placenta is buried,” traces the disruption of the burial site (the homeland) of this afterbirth and its troubled future. The mother has also been also employed with her adult offspring. She is symbolically portrayed as the protector of culture or a continuing force in tradition. Sango Malo and Finzan portray mothers who are supportive of their daughters’ different outlook on marriage within tradition, even at the risk of being beaten or ousted from their husbands’ house.

The woman as carrier

The woman as carrier, especially with a load on the head, is an omnipresent figure in African female representation. The verticality of the body is enhanced while the grace of movement and posture is highlighted. As the baby on the back, the load on the head becomes an extension of the body and its form. This body attitude provides an assessment of how, what I would call body training develops a body countenance that may be found in a range of milieux within a given culture. For instance, a woman who has since childhood balanced a load on her head would in other contexts walk in an upright, shoulders back position. Thus the graceful posture of such a movement viewed as cultural or environmental is found in everyday activities within that culture.

Woman mortaring

The woman mortaring has by far taken on the symbolism of the African woman at work, particularly in African historical representations of sculpture. With the emergence of African women in westernized contexts, images have evolved to represent the “modern African woman”. The African career woman as student or teacher or the African woman working in an oppressive colonial or postcolonial system as prostitute or domestic have been images that have evolved in the representation of post-colonial Africa. In La Noire de..., Ousmane Sembene does a sensitive portrayal of a young Senegalese woman’s psychological journey, Diouana, who works as a domestic. His depiction of the African female domestic worker and her European female employer is one of the rare interpretations of interracial, intragender tensions between women. The dramatic saga of Diouana is purposefully depicted in a mise en scène that generally takes place in the living room of her employers, a French couple. The spatial focus that orients the eye toward 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, shutout, and pushed aside.

Female corporeality and corporeal practices

Female aesthetics and corporeality incorporate female adornment and raiment and the physical aspects of the African woman. Nudity, headgear, body wear, tatooing, cicatrization, coiffure and so on. It is because the visualization of the body and corporeal practices is quotidian and commonplace that they are easily rendered cinematically. At the same time they may also be manipulated to give meaning that is outside of their cultural context. Filmmakers have drawn metaphors, made juxtapositions, and created symbolisms.

It is perhaps in Ousmane Sembene’s Xala, that the juxtaposition of the “westernized and “traditional” African woman is most often seen. The most indicative scene of this dichotomy is that of the co-wives Awa and Oumi at the wedding of their husband and his third wife. Awa is in the left half of the frame dressed in a head covering and an elegant white boubou with a chewing stick in her mouth. Oumi 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.

Often the spatial contrast between the “westernized woman” and the “traditional” woman is illustrated by how the two groups dress as well as how they use their bodies sitting on the floor rather than sitting on western style furniture, and doing daily activities outside rather than in the confines of the house.

Some examples: Wend Kuuni, Touki Bouki and Saaraba

Wend Kuuni

Gaston Kaboré’s Wend Kuuni provides a particularly astute reading of female corporeality and corporeal practices, although the plot of the film focuses on a young boy. Kaboré invites the spectator to explore the specific activities of one family. In an early scene Pognéré, the young female protagonist, and her mother are working in the family compound. The mother who is crushing meal with a stone, is in the foreground of the frame while Pognéré is in the background pounding meal in a mortar. The combination of differing movements is deliberate, creating a striking spatial harmony. The mother uses a horizontal movement as she extends and contracts her arms. Pognéré creates a vertical movement as she brings the pestle up and down. The spatial differences are also made as they both occupy opposite sides of the frame, horizontally and opposing sagittal planes.

Using a low angle left to right pan, Kaboré captures women at the market in various activities. Most are seated while some bend down to sample the merchandise or interact with others. Using a low angle shot, the camera scans the anterior view of some and the posterior view of others. A low angle cut to an elder woman at the right edge of the frame captures her as she sits on a low stool. She shapes the exterior space around her as her bent knees extend in front and her legs beneath her. Her postural shape is formed by a gathering movement toward the center of her body. While standing postures exhibit the verticality of the body, sitting positions, especially on low stools, engage the extremities of the body to form interesting shaping. The corporeal practice of bending to do activities is widely found in African films; such as cultivating the field and cooking. Kaboré aptly portrays this in Wend Kuuni as the mother begins to sweep and calls to Pognéré to come to finish the job, again a mimetic play of mother and daughter, though done sequentially. Both the corporeal and cultural practice of stooping are highlighted as Pognéré’s mother brings water to her husband. While she stoops down beside him, seated on the ground, she waits as he finishes drinking the water.

Touki Bouki

In the beginning sequence of Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambety presents a superb rendition of corporeal practices in the quotidian activities of the women. The opening scene portrays Anta, the female protagonist and a student at the University of Dakar. Dressed in pants and shirt with hair uncovered, she is seated at a table writing. In stark contrast, her 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 kerchief, she is cleaning her teeth with a chewing stick. The camera follows Anta as she passes women stooping while washing clothes. It scans the various everyday scenes; a young girl as she lowers the pail on her head and dumps its contents. It follows a group of young girls as they carry buckets on their heads, it leaves to follow one woman from behind. It captures another woman carrying a bucket on her head viewed from below. Capturing a second water carrier in a shot from below, the camera cuts to her buttocks insisting that the spectator watch the movement of her posterior as she sways along. It returns to Anta’s promenade as she passes her Aunt Oumni, whose lips are tattooed and hair coifed in a Jamono Kura hairstyle of nineteen-forties’ Senegal. The closing sequence portrays Anta on the ship Ancerville as she waits to depart for Paris. In her “Western” frocks, with pink hat, sunglasses and pants suit she is in stunning contrast to the “rebel” student of the opening scene.


Saaraba by Amadou Saalum Seck allows another reading, raises the question of African versus Western film language and cultural codes as well as the cultural body in context, and provides a discussion for contemporary debates around the subject of the African female body in contemporary African films as well as the present on-going discussion of African women and representation. In a scene of the opening sequence, Lissa lays on the ground as her friend coifs her hair. The male protagonist, Tamsir arrives and greets his family after being away for seventeen years in France. A cut to Lissa, responding to his salutations, portrays the newly coifed hair; braided extensions pulled to one side over the shoulder. Though Seck attempts to portray a young village woman in her everyday environment doing commonplace activities, the spectator is not convinced of the verity of Lissa’s body attitude.

In a subsequent scene Lissa brings water, in two separate cuts, to the soon-to-be rivals, the MP and Tamsir; she kneels beside them as they drink. The construction of this scene appears to be a pretext for a “Western male gaze” at Lissa as they both drink the water. A cut to Lissa’s back and the details of her body movements then back to the Mp and Tamsir, allows the spectator to observe them as they both ogle her. An image of Lissa sitting on the ground while sewing on a manual machine is in stark contrast to her mother who is beside her. The contrast in their countenance and body attitude goes beyond generational differences. Though it is revealed that her mother does not read French and the impression is emphasized that she is “traditional,” there are no indications that show that Lissa has been socialized differently. Yet she portrays a similar urban Western “sophistication” as Tamsir who has spent years in France.

Lissa is constructed as a young, rural “traditional” African woman against the western gaze of the camera. There is a western-like “sexiness” and seductiveness that seems well out of place in the village that suggests naturalness and simplicity. It reveals the incongruities that arise from the exoticization of African corporeality and corporeal practices.

In Saaraba the culturally specific female corporeality is appropriated and eroticized outside of the contextual milieu. Thus the “male gaze” that pervades Western films is fixed upon the African female body in not so different ways than one finds in colonial images of the colonized female or Western films that both exoticize and eroticize the “native” woman in her “natural” habitat.

Because of the specific colonial histories of African cultures, and the impositions of European values and lifestyles in Africa, this paradigm serves in the discussion of both external as well as internal influences. As the body politic of western media culture becomes more pervasive the gap between African and western corporeal practices and expressions both widens and shrinks. It lessens as the latter is increasingly absorbed into African cultures while broadening as the former is represented as exotic and traditional. African corporeal expressions are thus relegated to anthropological studies, National Geographic photography, and women and development iconography. African films on the other hand contextualize these specific practices and expressions and show their integral roles in African cultures. Unfortunately, because of the pervasiveness of westernization in Africa, films that confront this phenomenon have become commonplace. It is left to be seen whether the integrity of African visual representation will be compromised by future generations of filmmakers, lured by the exploitative and gazing eye of the Hollywood camera.

Paradigms for interpreting the body in evolving images found in contemporary and popular culture in Africa serve to dispel the myths and misinterpretation that have heretofore circulated throughout the world.

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