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, September 2014
The objective of the weekly critical reflection paper was to make connections on the readings, discussions, lectures and visuals as they evolved from week to week, critically engaging the course content. The critical reflection paper was a space within which students worked through the concepts, theories, questions and difficult issues that were addressed. I found this exercise to be a very satisfying activity, as it was a way to interact directly with students, responding to, commenting on their reflections and dialoguing with them via email communication.
Under the themes “Women’s voices” and “Women's Stories, Experiences and Realities” students were exposed to myriad creative expressions and practices based on the conceptual framework of “the plurality of African women’s voices”: that African women are not a monolith. This notion became the leitmotiv of the course, as students incorporated it into their evolving knowledge and understanding of African women experiences.
Each student was assigned an interview of a filmmaker to read and critically engage for the class lecture, visual presentation and discussion:
Burkina Faso: A Conversation with Laurentine Bayala
Cameroon: Françoise Ellong
Cape Verde: Isabel Moura Mendes
Congo-Brazzaville: A Conversation with Nadège Batou
Eritrea: Asmara Beraki: “Anywhere Else”
Madagascar: Marie-Clémence Paes
Morocco: Rahma Benhamou El Madani
Namibia: Oshosheni Hiveluah: A Portrait
South Africa: Bridget Thompson: what shaped/shapes my i/eye
One may note that the selection of women spans the continent and encompasses the diversity of languages and cultures, thus reflecting a cross-continental perspective. Excerpts of their work were presented to contextualise the ideas and examples explored and examined during the interviews.
The storyteller, an identity visible across the artistic experiences of African women, has its origins in the deep-rooted oral traditions of most African societies. What stories do African women tell? How do their life experiences impact their art and choices? How do the realities of the societies where they are born or in which they navigate reflect in their art? These questions were addressed through readings of the selected interviews noted above and the focus on four artists that follow.
The choice of an eclectic selection of artists was based on—which was already emphasised as an objective of the course—the desire to highlight the multiplicity of women’s stories, women’s voices:
- writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
- painter Kebedech Tekleab (Ethiopia)
- multi-disciplinary artist Werewere Liking (Cameroon)
- the late singer Cesária Èvora (Cape Verde).
As underscored earlier, the choice of artists was also guided by available materials and readings in English (or from my translations from French) that were directly relevant to the issues and concepts of the course objectives. Points to consider for the readings and the class visual presentation and lecture included:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What is the danger of a single story?
Kebedech Tekleab: Using brush and pen to tell the experience of war and conflict
Werewere Liking: The Village Ki-yi, a social movement that builds alternative approaches of development
"Werewere Liking at the Villa Ki-Yi". Peter Hawkins. African Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 359 (Apr., 1991), pp. 207-222.
Cesária Évora: Beyond exotica and nostalgia, telling stories through song. "Cesária Évora 'The Barefoot Diva' and other stories". Carla Martin, Transitions, Issue 103, 2010 pp. 82-97.
The session began with excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk, warning of the danger of a single story. How a single story limits, stereotypes, thwarts the notion of multidimensionality, encourages the monolithic idea. Her admonishment had unexpected results, leading into a class discussion during which students gave examples of their own experiences of “the single story”. Not specifically about Africa or African women; but rather like Adichie, when realizing that they had viewed someone through a single lens, based upon an incomplete or distorted story. This lesson became an epiphany, a learning moment.
While Kebedech Tekleab uses her brush and poems to relate her story of internment as a civilian prisoner, her story becomes a universal one, she traverses borders beyond her own experiences connecting with, concerned about, the universality of human suffering. She is not merely a former African civilian prisoner, but a person among others in the world who endured suffering and has overcome it through creativity and art.
As a multi-disciplinary artist Werewere Liking defies artistic categories, as well as takes a critical and committed position regarding culture, language and gender. Her story unfolds as a multi-layered, cross-disciplinary visual, performative text.
Cesaria Evora’s role as cultural ambassador challenges the prevailing image of her as the “barefoot diva of the islands” and the stereotypical “mother Africa”, her songs relay her myriad stories of love, life, dreams and hope.
In her critical engagement with the theme of women’s multiple voices and stories, student Jenna Breslin '16 (Denison University) had this to say in her critical reflection: All four artists— Chimamanda Achidie, Werewere Liking, Cesária Evora and Kebedech Tekleab—use diverse forms of art, language and connection to conquer the danger of the “single story” that threatens to drown out the voices of diversity in understandings of African culture and the human condition. Instead, by crossing national and ethnic boundaries and connecting individuals based upon human commonalities of emotion and experience, instead of separating them upon lines of the stereotyped “single story,” we see how the works of these African women apply dignity and honour to our understanding of Pan Africanism and African women, not as a monolith, but as an expansive spectrum of experiences.
By Beti Ellerson, August 2014
Also published at the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema