Women in the African continent have been erased and excluded for centuries from access to nature and the ability to drive wildlife storytelling. This erasure and exclusion are evident when one looks more closely at colonial history and how the female body and her environment have been depicted on screen.
This article focuses on how, historically, women, especially women of color, have been left out of the conversation on exploring nature, conserving nature, and wildlife documentaries. This article will draw on the idea of the female gaze as a means of exploring how we can reclaim women’s identity in Africa, both as individuals and in relation to their environment.
Colonial and apartheid history has played a crucial role in controlling and sustaining Africa’s image using its people and the natural environment. Therefore, the discussion must begin by reflecting on this history to grasp the progressive move towards the reclaiming discussed previously.
The colonial representation of Africa has been satirized by Binyavanga Wainaina. He details how to write about Africa:
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words Zanzibar,’ ‘Masai,’ ‘Zulu,’ ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo,’ ‘Nile,’ ‘Big,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum,’ ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal.’ Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
Through Wainaina’s reflections, we can see the visual image in which the African landscape has been carefully described to sustain the narrative of a primordial place needing saving. Remnants of these early sentiments are still present within wildlife and nature films today, with a heavy emphasis on the big five, the savage African kingdom of cats, and the bright orange sunsets.
One image scarcely found in these films is the presence of powerful black women as the protectors of wildlife and the creators of nature storytelling. As mentioned earlier, their presence on screen served a particular purpose and was often not prioritized in wildlife storytelling. During the early colonial period, early conceptualizations of conservation also played a crucial role in ensuring nature and wildlife were mainly accessible to the white privileged classes.
“There was no recognition of the labor of the thousands of black workers who made the national parks possible and devoted themselves to wildlife conservation” (Fig and Cock, 2000: 24).
Through this, we see how the lack of representation can filter into nature films and documentary films that engage with nature more generally. Although people of color and women were part of these conservation projects, their lack of recognition made it appear that they were separate.
Nature and wildlife in the African continent have also been controlled by maintaining their image as a space that remains pure and untouched. Given colonial ideologies, the presence of women of color within such films would have countered this ideology. Instead, women on screen symbolized sexual and promiscuous traits as opposed to being the savior or prominent figure of the narrative. Women, particularly those within Africa during the colonial period, were seen to have no agency within the narrative and within the filmmaking industry itself. Thus, their portrayal lay in the hands of their privileged male counterparts.
“The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel “(Pilgrim, 2002).
Pilgram points out the distinction even amongst white female representation on screen compared to women of color whose primary purpose was to cause disruption and promote promiscuous behavior. However, what also becomes significant here is how Pilgram highlights how women of color were described as predatory. In other words, women of color were perceived as having animal-like attributes, making them outcasts from society.
We see this trope in early films such as D. W Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation” (1915), which has the black female character at the center of promiscuous activity. This film has faced great scrutiny not only for how the black female characters were represented but also through the racist and violent nature in which he depicted war and slavery. The women in the film are entirely silenced and have no agency. Although “Birth of a Nation” concerns the African American story, it speaks more globally to how the black body has been cinematically represented during the early colonial period.
The female gaze- reclaiming her identity
“The antidote to the male gaze, and one avenue to women reclaiming their sexuality, is the female gaze: learning to see clearly for themselves, thus reconstructing traditional male images of women” (Bowers, 1990).
In the context of Africa, the female gaze extends much further than the reconstruction of female sexuality. The female gaze in Africa is ultimately concerned with reclaiming the black female body onscreen and in her environment. We can not begin to apply this Eurocentric perspective in Africa without acknowledging the colonial and apartheid contributions that shaped the representation of the female body.
For this reason, this paper began by mapping out how the continent and its women have been depicted. By doing so, we can explore how more contemporary films have started this reclaiming process and have deconstructed some of these earlier tropes, such as the jezebel. This reclaiming has begun taking place through the visual depiction of women onscreen and their involvement in the creative process. As a result, post-colonial African cinema has increasingly seen women claiming their power and being at the forefront of writing their stories.
One of those women is Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye. Not only does Faye’s work include women as the narrative’s central characters, but her films also reclaim how African culture and spirituality have been portrayed on screen. What makes Faye’s work so unique lies in her ability to claim her power as a storyteller and her embrace of traditional storytelling. Faye does not shy away from embracing her cultural beliefs and deviating away from western forms of storytelling.
We see this in her films, such as Mossane (1996), which fully explores African tradition and spirituality. Mossane not only has a young 14-year-old girl as the main character but also incorporates realism and imagination as part of the narrative. Ellerson states:
“In the film she highlights their myriad experiences embedded in the life cycle and quotidian of the agricultural sector and its struggle to sustain itself. For Faye it is much more valuable to depict women in the context of their lived experiences in their society, showing the opposing forces in their lives” (Ellerson, 2019).
As Ellerson argues, Faye is concerned with placing women at the forefront of the narrative and delving into their everyday struggles and experiences. Although this speaks back to the earlier discussion of the female gaze as a process of reclaiming, Mossane reclaims not only the identity of this young rural girl but also the everyday, mundane character of her life in the village. The girl’s beauty is manifested by her physical attributes and the cinematography of the nearby rivers and natural habitats Faye incorporates.
“The development of Africa will not happen without the effective participation of women. Our forefathers’ image of women must be buried once for all” (Ousmane Sembene)
Although Sembene had been reflecting on the continent’s overall development through this particular quote, one could apply it to the development of African cinema. The final film this paper will mention – Sisters of the Wilderness – attempts to empower the female participants and reflect on their effective participation, as Sembene discusses.
Sisters of the Wilderness, directed by Karin Slater in 2018, is created by women and empowers female characters within the film. In many ways, this film attempts to bridge the gap around access to nature reserves by allowing the female characters to learn and gain access to their natural environment. As viewers, we are invited to join five women on their journey through the reserve while discovering how the reserve becomes part of their healing. Although these women live around the reserve, their lack of access to the natural environment reflects the experience of many black African communities whose presence is often entirely ignored by nature and wildlife films. Furthermore, if their presence is not ignored, they are portrayed villainously as hindering the work of nature’s protectors.
In conclusion, the female gaze in Africa is ultimately a move towards reclaiming identity, spirituality, and storytelling. Through films like Mossane and Sisters of the Wilderness, we can re-imagine how the black female body had been depicted on screen. The colonial and apartheid ideology of nature as a pure and untouched space for the elite is challenged. Communities across the racial and gender spectrum can, finally, become part of nature and wildlife storytelling.
Bowers, S.R., 1990. “Medusa and the female gaze.” NWSA Journal, pp.217-235.
Cock, J. and Fig, D., 2000. “From colonial to community-based conservation: environmental justice and the national parks of South Africa.” Society in Transition, 31(1), pp.22-35.
Ellerson, B., 2019. “Safi Faye’s Mossane: A Song to Women, to Beauty, to Africa.” Black Camera,10(2), pp.250-265.
This article is based on a presentation I gave at the Nature Through Her Eyes 2022 festival in Cape Town, South Africa.