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?


9 responses

  1. 3) In Senufo art, for each male artist a female counterpart existed. For example, blacksmith’s wives were specialists in ritual basketry. Glaze was the first one to observe and analyze this.

  2. Like Chadwick, I think Aronson is effective in showing through example the bias of traditional, “Western” art historical documentation. Both the intense look at craft and her observations concerning anthropological approaches/African art outside of the “traditional” scope (p. 551-552) framed a paradoxical double-standard that complements Chadwick’s series of examples.

    “Research is devoted mainly ‘traditional’ arts…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.” (552)

    Aronson’s look at the presence of fraternal and sororal orders of artists and their complimentary nature (as based on Glaze’s work) stood out to me as particularly significant because 1) it underlines the import and power of women in Senufo art and 2) it names the previous oversights of the methods of past ethnographic art historians as oversights. Having had little exposure to such an anthropologically-based approach to art history I’m still wrapping my head around the full implications of such a study (epistemic problems and legacy of colonialism, etc).

    • Gala, I am having a very similar struggle. How is it that the very people who colonized Africa have such negative feelings towards artworks that were influenced by colonization, and how do we proceed to look at that?

  3. I found it interesting to read “The Feminist Critique of Art History” in light of this article on African art and compare the views expressed on Craft vs. Fine Arts—the idea of the quilt as a metaphor for women’s lives—and proposition that decorative art and craft have both political and subversive potential. Could the latter notion be true of the crafts made by women from different regions of Africa? Did you see any other ways these two articles intersected?

    • Yes! Decorative art and craft in Africa both have subversive and political potential. Consider the power of being the person behind your own image, representing self according to your own culture’s aesthetic (scarification, beads, etc) as opposed to an aesthetic that has been imposed on you. I noticed that it is not the interior of the homes that the women paint and decorate, but the exterior walls–demonstrating their identity to the rest of the world around them through illustration, through portraiture of sorts.
      (Can we just call them utilitarian arts? or traditional works?)
      “Crafts” in the various African societies mentioned were imbued spiritually with a sort of power, given importance to ceremonial rites of passage (pot for marriage) or religious observance (baskets; iron; sculptures for shrines).

  4. Another parallel that really frustrates me is how men essentially set women up for failure. For example, in Europe, men kept women from painting historical and religious scenes, and then treated women as lesser artists because they did not paint scenes from the top level of the hierarchy. Similarly, when studying African art, men used males as their sources of information, and therefore assumed that women did not play a role in masquerades.

  5. 1Aronso and and Chadwick frame introduction in a similar way, writing about how women’s art was not considered “high” art because of its often utilitarian use, delegating it as merely craft. However, since it was Western art historians and critics who decides that this was “African Art” in the 20th century, the inferiority of art made by female African artists was imposed by colonizers and is not a native belief. However since it is Nonwestern art, those who study it seek to get it in it’s “purist” form, so no one really studies art from the colonial era or contemporary African art because it’s been “tainted” by Western influence. I was also struck by the separation of labor, and how it seemed to be largely based on biological differences and how often women’s roles were complimentary to men’s roles.

  6. I see parallels between Aronson and Peterson, particularly in the discussion of art versus craft, and of a socially constructed female sensibility based on assigned roles. There is an order and structure based on harmony and balance, on individual and collective responsibilities, complementing processes, such as blacksmithing and pottery, or sculpture and pottery placement.
    It seems much more likely that an object’s material and sentimental value would INCREASE according to its utilitarian purposes and importance, rather than solely for aesthetic…

    In African societies, labor divided by gender–not in a chauvinistic way, rather in a way that celebrated and protected according to (biological and social) differences between men and women. Blacksmiths guarding the secrets and sacred aspects of their work from women, especially those who were menustrating or pregnant, makes sense: In African religions, everything has a spiritual connection, a communal relationship exists with the people, the environment, the elements–metal work especially, linked to deities… The separation was ideologically protective but also supportive of potential/future children (fire + metal working=dangerous).

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