Discussion Questions on “African Women in the Visual Arts”

1.  Many of the gender issues introduced by Chadwick come into play in Aronson’s discussion of African women’s art, such as their works being relegated to the category of craft, etc.  What are some of the parallels that you noticed in these two readings?  What are the differences?

2.  What is the “cocktail” of disciplines that comprise African art history and is it different from one’s approach to western art history?

3.  What did women bring to the table in Senufo art?  What were Glaze’s contributions to the field?  How did Adams flesh out the role of women in the public (i.e., men’s masquerade) and in women’s own form of masquerade?

4. How was biology used in the division of labor between men and women in the various crafts?

5.  Were you particularly struck by any examples of the hierarchy of the arts discussed in this article?  What is the correlation between social status, the household economy, and the domestic arts?

6.  What role does gender play in the production and use of masks?  Scarification?

7.  What are the ramifications of the pottery making traditions of the  Kamba females of Kenya? Can you think of any comparable traditions?

8.  Aronson states that “…economics is essential for explaining some aesthetic rules, organizational patterns, and the important question of sexual division of labor in the arts.”  What are some examples of this?  What are some of the art historical questions that remain on the African horizon?


5 responses

  1. 1.I noticed the parallel of economic incentive, as well as women artist being a development of a lineage rather than their own person.

    2. The discussion of style and functionality is much more prevalent in African Art than in European art. More than any other art, it seems that african art history has not been separated from anthropology.

    3. Women were potters and basket weavers. Glaze was the first art historian to study females in spheres that were previously thought to be exclusively male. Adams points out the women’s masquerade through the use of makeup as a source of equalizing power of genders and access to the ritual.

    4.For blacksmithing, the division of labor was very important. Menstruating women could not be present in case they tainted the delicate process. The role of biology and creation was very interesting in this article. It seems totally subjective as to what is considered biologically suitable for male and female artists to create.

    5. The hierarchy that I found to be the most interesting was the hierarchy of recognition. Women in order to be recognized for their arts would be recognized in silence.

    6. The role of gender in masks is complicated. Only men carve wood masks, but one wood mask is used in female ceremonies. Women’s masks are more loosely interpreted as make-up. Women scar themselves at first in accordance with prevalent female functions, such as above their navel to symbolize fertility. Later, the scars become part of their identity. They also mimic the scars on objects to help “nurture” whatever goes in the object or to mark the object as a female object.

    7. The implications of the pot making traditions of the Kamba female is that daughters are essentially another form of their mothers. This metaphor does not allow much room for individuality or personal initiative.

    8. It seems that recently introduced arts encourage gender equality, perhaps because they do not have established gender implications. So in that instance, international trade comes into play. Sometimes, if women are new to the work force of a certain art, they will visually differentiate their art from male art.

    Why are there more contemporary male african artists than female african artists? is there something holding back female african artists? Is it possible for a female african artists to succeed without referring to her origins ( I think here of Edmonia Lewis)?

  2. My primary question is quite similar to #2 above. Generally, what is art? But more specifically, do the women making these objects consider the objects art? If yes, why? If no, why not? What are the implications of Western scholars defining and analyzing the objects made by sub-Saharan African women? It would be easy for us to discuss scarification as performance art, but what would the women who participate say?

  3. Something that particularly struck me in this article was at the beginning where Aronson states, “Arts affected by urbanization or colonization are thought to be little more than polluted versions of the real thing and, therefore, not worthy of serious attention. Contemporary arts are equally neglected because they are not considered real arts” ( 552).

    Why is this so? Isn’t this just as marginalizing as the oppression female artists initially (and arguably still today) face? The fact that contemporary African art is ignored or not considered to be of high value sounds like the sort of elitism we discussed that was influenced by art history scholarship and sort of reinforces the idea that Western art is superior while other world art is inferior.

    I could just be overreacting, but that particular passage definitely drew my attention.

  4. I found it interesting that in this article the point is made that women were a part of the art sphere, but it is modern academics that have just not recognized their modes of art as equally as important as men’s. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say that I think it’s interesting that when discussing Western female artists, often times it seems like justification is trying to be made that women really are “masters”. But in the case of African female artists (at least in this article) the focus is on the fact that the types of art made by women is just as important as their male counterparts’, it just isn’t recognized as such by westerners.

    I was really struck by the permanence of the scarification. I think it’s significant that men are able to remove their masks whereas women’s scarification is a permanent tie to their identity and stage in life. Along with this, I think it’s interesting that men occasionally appropriate the women’s body markings because of “their power associations.”

    The way wall designs and cloth production were completed reminded me of the western workshop and apprentice system. The difference being that for the Gurensi people and Kuba clan the creative production was a group activity, rather than a project led by one person who receives sole credit for the results.

  5. Perhaps one of the most notable parallels is between the characterizations of women in the two articles. In Chadwick’s discussion, it is noted that women were allowed and even encouraged to pursue some arts, including needle work and portraiture. It seems that this theme is mirrored in Aronson’s article. Something that separates women’s art in these articles is that women’s arts in Africa are seen as necessary and useful, while the arts of women in Europe are much more frivolous.

    I also thought that it was interesting that women were kept from some arts for biological reasons, but in totally different ways. In Europe women are kept from art for supposed “weakness” and lack of “genius” while in Africa is it on the basis of menstruation.

    I agree with Catherine’s point that the scarification of these women creates a kind of permanent mask. This scarification practice, though admittedly quite different, is similar in some counts to the use of makeup on female portraiture. The seemingly “necessary” alteration of a woman’s appearance in order to qualify her womanhood is shocking and recurring.

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