The Power Games: Between Feminine Identity and African Identity

Even though the artists are trying to break the typical gender moulds, they are expressing themselves by using stereotypical characters. This counter acts their intentions, and instead of inventing new traditions, they are complying with old reactionary traditional values. 

By: Anna Ansell

Around the globe societies within societies, nations as well as sexual categories, have had a complex desire to want to formulate a strong, relatable identity and tradition in a continual process. This has to do with the fact that most societies view themselves as being in the centre. A dilemma arises, brought up by Olu Oguibe in his article “In the Heart of Darkness” (1993) about, “The supposed distress of Africans caught in no-man’s land between Europe and their “authentic” selves.” Oguibe’s point is that African countries are caught in a twilight zone where they have to find out, invent or re-invent their traditions and identities. Africans have to do this on their own terms because it has always been overlooked and monitored, both actively and passively by the West.

Investigating how Ugandan female artists’ work reflects tradition and identity has been chosen in an attempt to understand Oguibe’s shift of focus from “the single centre for a multiplicity of centres”. In this way, we explore issues of identity in Ugandan art to shift complex ideas from a small part of the art world into a relevant centre. The aim of this critique is to understand the course of African Art Histories through the view point of talented women. They are after all African artists who can make us understand how different types of African identities and traditions are born or re-born.

The aim is to understand how gender identity as well as African identity are constructed by analysing and interpreting the selected artwork of artists Rebecca Bisaso, Josephine Alacu, Maria Naita, Jenny Namuwonge, Rose Kirumira and Lilian Mary Nabulime, to grasp what meaning their art work creates. By studying how gender and tradition interact with each other, I seek to understand the invention or re-invention of tradition in these Ugandan artists work.

A Mother’s Nightmare              Josephine Alacu, 1980
Printed in Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa,
Jane Havell (Ed.), p. 173.

Uganda’s Female Artists for the Win

African identity in visual art is portrayed by idyllic village life, with market scenes and set traditional values for both men and women. This was found in the works of Bisaso, Alacu and Namuwonge. Kirumira and Nabulime are doing the same, however  they are also portraying a social catastrophe: the spread of HIV/AIDS. This causes death, and affects everyone in the Ugandan society, women, children and men. They have chosen to educate and bring this disease to light through sculptures because people can walk around them, touch and feel the art. If people cannot talk about death caused by HIV/AIDS, then they are forced to see and understand, both alone and together through art.

All of the artists are trying to unite everyone in Ugandan society through their art and connect this through a mutual African identity that is shared by everyone. The Gate Keeper, demonstrates that even if a piece of art does not have a clear identity attached to it, it can present a spiritual reference. The art acts as a mirror for the observer in order to place a new reference and context to the art, thus HIV can be problematized and addressed.

Nabulime, Kirumira and Bisaso, through their art, have aimed to take away the taboo that exists in discussing HIV throughout Ugandan society. An educational approach has been adopted by Kirumira and especially Nabulime. They want to incorporate all senses of the observer into their art. Bisaso’s portrayal of HIV was a consequence of her strong sexual symbolism in her art, displaying political and social tragedies from a female perspective

Sexual Identity 

Sexuality was a strong marker and was present in all the artists’ work, regardless of time period, political setting or medium. The artists are either trying to display a gender norm, or de-construct it by showing the observer the limitations and traps of being a woman in Uganda. The titles alone, Woman’s Burden, Mother’s Nightmare, already foreshadow a gender construction. The artworks themselves, display the vulnerability and helplessness of women and their relationship with men. Women tend to be in the centre, for show, so that men can look up at them, accept them or reject them. However, Nabulime, Namuwonge, Naita and Kirumira begin to breakdown this set identity and instead re-use their African identity in order to re-invent a new feminine identity.

A Woman’s Burden – Rebecca Bisaso, 1990
Printed in Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa,
Jane Havell (Ed.), p. 173.

This identity, accepts their womanhood, beauty and sexual choices. Even though the artists are trying to break the typical gender moulds, they are expressing themselves by using stereotypical characters. This counter acts their intentions, and instead of inventing new traditions, they are complying with old reactionary traditional values. Women in these artists’ pieces are sexualised and traditionalised to comply with village life and the community.

All of the artists, with the exception of Namuwonge and Kirumira, have a female or female body as the central character in each respective story. Namuwonge displays a sexless scene, where traditional everyday life is occurring but people’s genders have less focus because they get metamorphosed into insects. This reveals the question of what meaning traditions have, and how deeply embedded they are in society.

There exists a paradox concerning the set nature of women’s roles in the art works portrayed, because women are weakened by their sex as well as empowered by it. Alacu shows women selling themselves for sex because it is the only weapon they have, however it is this weapon that leads them into becoming bearers of children and mothers. In order for these women to be strong, good mothers they need to follow an acceptable traditional construction. If they do not do this they become more handicapped and lose this strong traditional mother status.

A conservative relationship between men and women has meant that communication about sex has been avoided, and a large part of this is due to customs and what is considered “being proper”. The artists’ are trying to carefully de-construct this system into a new respectable path of communication that is considered decent and can be evolved into their traditions. This is therefore a display of the artists re-using existing traditions and re-inventing it, into incorporating modern science and information. The artists are constantly lifting up, re-evaluating and trying to progress with social realities. They are creating new traditions, re-inventing old ones in order to fit with who they become or aspire in becoming.

Overall, all the paintings bring up death, sexuality and AIDS. These themes address the complex relationship of gender identity verses African identity. The difficulty of being a female artist infers that one has to create ways of communicating, meaning they invent masks for people to relate to, or reuse ideas in tradition and identities in order to reach out to an audience.

The Market – Jenny Namuwonge, 1990
Printed in Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa,
Jane Havell (Ed.), p. 172.

African identity creates principles and rules for how women should act in society, and this, in turn, affects the gender identity of women. The analysis has shown that women can be traditionalised rather than sexualised. It demonstrates that women can be objectified in different ways, which all leads to one common end, that their identity disappears. The key idea is not hinged on disappearance, rather that traditions are always being re-invented, because even if they appear to be a set tradition, everyone adds their own context to traditions. It is therefore self-evident that each artist, as an African woman, has her own histories of tradition and her artistic medium becomes an outlet for expressing the invention or manipulation of complex identities.

Anna Ansell is a Tanzanian born scholar, now studying Psychology at Uppsala University.

2 thoughts on “The Power Games: Between Feminine Identity and African Identity

  1. so0 is it any real civil sociyty if you have a other identety then you citizenship/poltical party/labouer union ?
    would you coutruibute to that if you dont iodentyfy whit it ?or is it just a middel class problem or maybe a elite problem for the tehc finace media computeter web desgin pepeol that have the time to build or countrcut ther owen identety if you poor or dont have freedom otherwise you dont have much time to think abut it othet then your family ?becuse you dont a life project your project ahve to be to earn mony anyway ?and only one need comunity iidentety are those that not cyberpunks or computer experts top know how to navigate the networkws ? both litraly and methaporichily are the ones that choiose comunity identety those that dont hace accses too philospherters (that moste ppl that understand fernch/german enghlis and have net acceses and a tablet do )that artist have the accses other adfricans dont… but dnt mother have the opertunity to counstruct ther idemntety fopr ther childre somthing like tha family bibel did before ?or is it that if you are contected to a netowrk both real life or computet net make it less hazel to make a project identety and a peronailset identety becuse you dont need to worry abut tradion in youtr tabelet only when you go to the local shop ‘;) if you dont to want to use sex as a tool both boy and girls cant you just make a online identety 🙂 :=) dont it also depend on the power aåaratus polical and media and comuynuicty if they dont tell who you are you must fiuge it out by yourself or you can other ppl chhose for you and be yourself onlie åpwer apartus can also be journals in art or antropoloigy who saysd what youy should do

  2. I would like to contact Anna Ansell in order to discuss further her fascinating article! How can I reach her ?

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