Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture, August 2014

based on a course created, designed and taught in spring 2014

(Denison University) by Beti Ellerson

Course Description

The course explores visual representation, the gaze and African women’s experience with the visual image across artistic disciplines, especially as it relates to image construction and social location. The course probes issues of identity, power, agency, the body, sexuality, race, ethnicity, gender and positionality at the intersection of feminism, postcoloniality, cultural studies and visual culture. 

The diversity and plurality of African life, history, experience and culture suggests that there is a plurality of African women’s experiences, thus the importance of using an interdisciplinary approach. To better understand African women’s cultural production, it is important to contextualize it within the larger sphere of African history in general, and African cultures in particular. The course explores the history, experiences, tendencies and sensibilities of African women’s artistic practice at the intersection of cultural criticism, postcolonial theory and gender analysis. The course draws especially from continental African women’s cultural discourses.

Understanding that Africa is a vast continent with many different languages, social and political histories, geographic and demographic specificities, as well as religious and cultural practices, the course highlights the plurality of African societies.

The course explores African cultures, histories and social interactions through the eyes of African women, traversing cinema, material culture, visual culture, sartorial and corporeal practices, music and dance, oral tradition, spirituality, African landscapes and environments, life cycles, African/Western encounters, African diasporas, technologies, resistance and conflicts, African liberation and independences, and the diverse critiques of African societies through their women artists. Central to the goals of the course is to study the particular nature of the diverse African social, cultural, political and economic systems. Thus the course will look at national, regional, continental and international trends and issues.

Themes of ethnicity, gender, religion, identity, relocation and diaspora, trauma and conflict—important issues of the first decade of the twenty-first century—identify some significant themes that will inform the course study.

This course enables an understanding of the complexity and diversity of African contemporary societies, through the eyes of African women. The course holds transforming potential for the students, and will be useful in their career goal of promoting greater understanding of African women’s role in cultural production, through its inquiry and analyses of the intersecting dynamics and focus on critical questions for study.

Course Structure and Outline

The course began with an overview, contextualizing African women in art, cinema and culture and framing the theoretical and critical discourse on visual representations of Africa and African women. Many of the sources were drawn from my own work in forging an African Women in Cinema Studies, especially because of its accessibility and also because I could engage the students directly with my research process, beginning with my book, Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television (Africa World Press, 2000), the film Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema (2002, distributed by Women Make Movies) and the creation of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema, (which I am founder and director) with its public forum, the African Women in Cinema Blog.

While the above sources focus broadly on the moving image, I was able to easily integrate them into specific and general discussions on visual art and cultural production. What drew me to “African Women in Cinema” as a study and research focus was its incredibly broad range of discourse and practice. Women on, in front, behind the screen—as makers, producers, scriptwriters, actresses, role models, consciousness raisers, practitioners, technicians, organisers, fundraisers, social media community managers, bloggers, agents of change, activists, advocates, audience builders, cultural producers, cultural readers, and above all, storytellers—they are all part of this notion of “African Women in Cinema” as a conceptual framework.

The course was organized, loosely, around themes:

Women artists’/filmmakers' voices

Women's stories, experiences and realities

Critical voices of women actors

Visual representations of African women

Interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities

Intergenerational perspectives

African women, new medias, social media  

Global diaspora, transnational

Gendered sensibilities: Male gazes, masculinist/feminist?

Structuring the course thematically allowed me to bring together women across disciplines. One of the regrettable downsides to this endeavour, and which I emphasised to the students throughout the course, was that those whose work was accessible, whose presence was visible, who were studied, focused on, talked about, written about, promoted, were the ones who were most likely included as examples—and I consciously avoided any “starification” encouraged by gatekeepers and self-promoters. And of course there is the inherent limitation of the 16-week semester. And thus, my objective was to give visibility to as many as possible, no matter how tiny their (online, researched, written) presence, by a variety of activities and exercises—critical written reflections, research, presentations, panel discussion, simulated exhibition/festival—and above all, by my own acknowledgement and recognition of their work during the class lectures.

Theoretical and critical practices of interpretation

I used introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences, explore how visual representations of African women, especially in cinema are theorised and problematized, and how theories and critical inquiry on African women in cinema have evolved. The presentation of the film Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema, has been a useful tool for me to structure the course, as a means for women themselves to talk about their experiences with cinema.

A few publications have been available in the last few years that serve as primary texts in the study of African women in cinema, notably the special issue of Journal of African Cinemas: Celebrating 40 years of films made by women directors in francophone Africa and Feminist Africa: African Feminist Engagements with Film, both issued in 2012. My contributions to both journals served as readings for the discussion on theoretical and critical practices of interpretation. In both articles, “Towards an African women in cinema studies” in Journal of African Cinemas, and “Reflections on cinema criticism and African women” in Feminist Africa, I probe the tenets, critical debates and developing trends in what has evolved as a veritable African Women in Cinema Studies. Essential to this discussion is its vital role in the history of African cinema, Women’s Studies and film criticism.

In the introductory week of the course, the students presented a short overview of their assigned countries in order to become familiar with or give a review of the historical contexts of the vast continent of Africa.

Under the theme, Women Artists’/Filmmakers' Voices the class had a glimpse at historical, political, and cultural events of African societies through the eyes of their women cultural producers, featuring Safi Faye (Senegal), Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), Fatou Kandé Senghor (Senegal) and Rina Jooste (South Africa). The readings included: “Safi Faye: Africa through a Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema” by Beti Ellerson, in Focus on African Films (Indiana University Press, 2004) by Françoise Pfaff, interviews with Tsitsi Dangarembga and Rina Jooste, and the translation from French of an autobiographical narrative by Fatou Kandé Senghor. The choice of the women was guided by my interest in highlighting the interdisciplinarity of African women artists’ lives, how they work at the intersection of multiple experiences. Safi Faye is a filmmaker and anthropologist, at the same time she blurs the boundaries of the documentary and fiction. Tsitsi Dangarembga is a filmmaker, writer, cultural activist, and organizer. Fatou Kandé Senghor is a multi-media artist, connecting the borderlines of filmmaking, performance, plastic arts, music—including hip hop. Rina Jooste, a musician turned filmmaker, and in turn historian, brings together these elements to deal with the difficult, storied history of South Africa, and in particular Afrikaner experiences and identities.

Students, thus, are exposed to the concept of African women in cinema as an expansive, outward-reaching entity, and from the beginning of the course, experience Africa as a vast continent with plural histories, cultures, languages and identities, and African women artists as complex and multidimensional human beings.

Women’s voices, Women’s Stories

The weekly critical written reflection assignment made 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:

Angola: (3 short profiles) Sarah Maldoror, Maria João Ganga, Pocas Pascoal

Benin: Farah Clémentine Dramani Issifou

Burkina Faso: A Conversation with Laurentine Bayala

Cameroon: Françoise Ellong

Cape Verde: Isabel Moura Mendes

Congo-Brazzaville: A Conversation with Nadège Batou

Egypt: Neveen Shalaby and the Agenda

Eritrea: Asmara Beraki: “Anywhere Else”

Gabon: A Conversation with Nadine Otsobogo

Ghana: Anita Afonu: Preserving Ghana's Cinematic Treasures

Madagascar: Marie-Clémence Paes

Malawi: Villant  Ndasowa, a Pioneer in Malawian Cinema

Morocco: Rahma Benhamou El Madani

Namibia: Oshosheni Hiveluah: A Portrait

South Africa: Bridget Thompson: what shaped/shapes my i/eye

Tunisia: Nadia El Fani: "In politics it’s alright to lose"

Zambia: Musola Cathrine Kaseketi: You Can Make a Difference

One may note that the selection of women spans the continent and encompasses the diversity of languages, thus allowing 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 performer Werewere Liking (Cameroon)

-  the late singer Cesária Èvora (Cape Verde).

As underscored earlier, the choices of artists were also guided by available materials and readings in English 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. "The Barefoot Diva" and other stories, Carla Martin. Transition 
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 human sufferings in general. 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.

Exploring a plurality of experiences

In one of the first of the class exercises, students were assigned artists/filmmakers to research and prepare a visual oral presentation. As was emphasised before, the choice of artists/filmmakers was guided by available visual materials (especially films as there is a dearth of accessible works in the United States) and readings in English (or from my translations from French):

Jane Alexander, visual artist (South Africa)

Raja Amari, filmmaker (Tunisia/France)

Elisabeth Atnafu, visual artist (Ethiopia/USA)

Sokari Douglas Camp, sculptor (Nigeria/UK)

Angèle Etoundi Essamba, photographer (Cameroon/Netherlands)

Nikyatu Jusu, filmmaker (Sierra Leone/USA) 

Aida Muluneh, filmmaker/photographer (Ethiopia)

Wangechi Mutu, mixed-media artist (Kenya/USA)

Ingrid Mwangi, interdisciplinary artist (Kenya/Germany)

Fanta Nacro, filmmaker (Burkina Faso)

Zullah Otto-Sallies, filmmaker (South Africa)

Akosua Adoma Owusu, filmmaker (Ghana/USA)

Bridget Pickering, filmmaker/producer (Namibia/South Africa)

Bernie Searle, interdisciplinary artist (South Africa)

Mary Sibande, photographer (South Africa)

As with the selections presented in “Women’s voices, Women’s Stories”, one may note that the women span the continent, reflecting its diversity of languages and cultures; thus allowing a trans-continental perspective.

Students were exposed to many cultural experiences, ideas and concepts. The work of Zullah Otto-Sallies introduced students to the Bo-Kaap, one of the oldest districts of South Africa, with a large population of people of Malay descent as well as a significant Muslim population. Her work also highlights the generational shifts and the tensions that they engender.

Students also learned about what Ghanaian-American Akosua Adoma Owusu describes as “triple consciousness”: being American, of African parentage and culture and, sharing the same skin-colour but not the same history as African-Americans. Similarly, Sierra Leone-American Nikyatu Jusu’s work described the experiences of first-generation Africans born in the United States.

Moreover, the exercise revealed that many of the women worked at the intersection of medias, notably Wangechi Mutu’s animation work: "The End of Eating Everything". The students discovered the globality of the women’s experience, having travelled, studied, worked or lived in multiple environments.

As will be discussed more extensively under the theme on identities, this exercise revealed the important role that identity plays in the works of so many African women cultural producers.

Saartjie Baartman and the Venus Hottentot: A Story of Representation

Students were introduced to Sara Baartman's story, the history and evolution of the ethnographic and colonial gaze, and the notion of the image as a construct. I intentionally structured the course to introduce these elements after already presenting African women with agency, voice and having their own gaze.

The materials to read in preparation for the film viewings of The Life and Times of Sara Baartman and The Return of Sara Baartman both by Zola Maseko, included Zine Magubane’s “Which Bodies Matter? Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the ‘Hottentot Venus”’ (Gender and Society 15, 2001), “Displaying Sara Baartman” by Sadiah Qureshi. Hist.Sci., (2004), Letter from the President: Thabo Mbeki, Saartjie's return restores our common dignity, the iconic poem “I’ve come to take you home” by Diana Ferrus and references to Vénus Noire : Une histoire de violences.

The problem posed for critical reflection and discussion encompassed several themes: the notion of the image as a construct: when Sara Baartman’s identity becomes a construct by others; the question of voice: who tells Sara Baartman’s story?: Sara Baartman’s story spans more than 200 years, as she continues to be of interest in the academy and in cultural productions—among artists and filmmakers—and more relevant to the issues that I wanted to explore in class, as a site of memory for South Africans.

And thus some points for critical reflection: How may one analyze, discuss, compare these disparate representations and periods in time? How does one know, understand, tell Sara Baartman’s story?

I proposed six components of this complex story-representation- identity to explore:

  1. 1)European travelers/settlers and the constructed ideal of the “Bushman”

  2. 2)Scientific racism--constructions of race – hierarchy of the races – categorization of all things

  3. 3)Human spectacles, freak shows, human zoos—anything considered different is exhibited

  4. 4)Sara Baartman and the Venus Hottentot as a theoretical construct /object: othering, alterity, deviant sexuality, abnormal anatomy, social construction of black femininity

  5. 5)Artists and representations: reclaiming or re-appropriating Sara Baartman/the Venus Hottentot?

6) The celebration of the return of Sara Baartman by South Africa, the Khoisan people and the emergence of an iconic figure.

What struck me most about this class session was the students’ shock, surprise and even sadness. Many weeks into the semester after empowering, positive, self-affirming representations and stories of African women, here is a 200-year old story of a racist, sexist, debasing experience that a young woman of Southern Africa endured! The discussion turned to my methodology: wanting to begin with a non-deficit approach, rather than to start with a chronicle of colonial, ethnographic representations and then explore how the gaze was returned.

Intersecting identities

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 unfolded 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 session “evolving racialized identities” encompassed:

Reading: Negotiating Racialized Identities in African Women’s Films, Claude Haffner: "Black Here, White There" | "Footprints of My Other", Eliachi Kimaro: A Lot Like You, Interview of Ngozi Onwurah in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa in Film, Video, Telelvision 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 women one may find intersecting themes of 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 unsettling.

The readings and visual materials for the session “evolving sexual identities” included:

Reading: Frieda Ekotto: For an endogenous critique of representations of African lesbian identity in visual culture and literature, Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki and Marie Kâ : L’Autre Femme | The Other Woman (Senegal). 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 that 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 exciting to how the students made connections with the diverse texts, films, visuals and themes.

Perspectives: intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora

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 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 post to reflect current activities and tendencies.

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:

A Focus on Burkinabé Women in Cinema

A Glance at Ethiopian Women in Cinema

Joyce Osei Owusu: Researching Ghanaian Women in Cinema

A Glance at Kenyan Women in Cinema

Agatha Ukata: Researching Women in Nollywood

The Evolution of Senegalese 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 discussed and elaborated in class, 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. 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, it is  categorized by theme:

African women in cinema on Vimeo

Cinéma d’Afrique au feminine - Dailymotion

African women in cinema on Youtube

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 in 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 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 and The Axe and the Tree, which came before and after the above-mentioned 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 others like Lupita Nyong’o of Kenyan parents, was born in Mexico and studied in the United States and recently awarded a coveted Oscar?

I argue that these movements and migrations 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 thee search for identity at the interstices of a 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 film screenings of the works of Katy Lena Ndiaye and Wanuri Kahiu and the performance art of 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 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, that she became 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?

Gendered sensibilities?: Safi Faye’s Mossane and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade

The last theme of the semester was framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?” This question was the centre of a discussion I had already explored in the film Sisters of the Screen, African Women in the Cinema during a sequence where several women reflected on my question. Drawing from this film segment, which was screened in class, the discussion focused on two films, one by a woman, Mossane (1996) by Safi Faye and the other a man, Moolaade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene, both from Senegal. This was the first time that a film by a man was a focus of discussion. Though the theme, "critical perspectives of African women actors" examined the visual representation of women on screen, which included films by African men, women's experiences were the point of departure. The readings for the session included: “Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema” an analysis of Safi Faye’s Mossane and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade; an interview with Ousmane Sembene on the subject of Moolaadé by Samba Gadjigo; and the revisiting of the article, "Africa through a Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema" by Beti Ellerson, in Focus on African Films by Françoise Pfaff.

The class discussion centred on the notion of “feminist” filmmaking, of whether women have a specific sensibility when dealing with issues related to women. Another point for discussion compared and contrasted the filmmakers’ approach to the dominant theme of both films: traditional practices regarding the girl child/woman’s body, her right to define her future, and the role of the village as agents of change.


In addition to the readings and visual materials, the wide range of exercises offered a dynamic and interactive exchange between the students and me, and among the students themselves—notably the panel forum that entailed the preparation and discussion of an assigned group topic. The final exercise encompassed a simulated event/environment showcasing African women cultural producers based on an assigned theme—an exciting culmination of the semester!

What I learned above all from the experiences of teaching this course was the incontestable fact that with available, accessible and organised materials and resources, a course such as this, perhaps seemingly obscure to some, may be taught, not just as a session or two within a course, or as a week-long seminar, but as a semester course. What still remains an obstacle, nonetheless, is the availability of films, which is the case in African cinema studies in general, due to the restraints of distribution. And perhaps the most frustrating, the fact that resources—for various reasons— are not always accessible directly from the continent. Nonetheless, as I have attempted to frame the course using a non-deficit approach in order to show the empowering and positive visual representations, voices and discourse, I remain within that spirit.