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The struggles for social equality between men and women remain an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society, culture and politics in contemporary Africa – as, indeed, in every other region of the world.
And yet, the general, instinctive but misleading assumption has persisted, even in otherwise knowledgeable circles, that any reference to gender is little more than a code word for raising narrow, even parochial concerns that are specific to the interests of
women. In a bid to correct this erroneous instinct and, in so doing, open new frontiers of reflection on gender issues among African social researchers, CODESRIA has decided to build on its tradition critical and innovative gender research by focusing its annual Gender Institute on themes that will both contribute to an erosion of stereotypes about gender studies and advance the frontiers of gendered knowledge as knowledge that is holistic. To this end, the 2006 Gender Institute will be focusing on the arts.
The arts, broadly defined, have always been an integral part of the African historical experience as, indeed, is the case with all human societies; some would even go one step further to argue that, for better or for worse and without any tendentious intentions, the arts are an integral part of the African personality and identity. Archaeologists and historians date the earliest forms of artistic expression in Africa back into antiquity, from the period when human beings were still in the cave. Over the centuries, as contexts have changed and societies undergone transformation, so too have the arts evolved and been reinvented, with some artistic forms being phased out, new ones introduced, and some others radically altered. Many of the artistic forms that existed in Africa prior to the continent’s contact with the rest of the world were the products of the many different ways in which various categories of people related to their local environment and local histories, and the ways in which they imagined or interpreted the world beyond their own immediate boundaries. The African encounter with the outside world, especially the contacts with Europe from the 15th century onwards, led to the introduction of new artistic forms and the adaptation of existing ones to the imperatives of externally-induced change. But there was also a politics of imposition of artistic forms by which, particularly during the colonial period, certain forms were privileged while others were suppressed in the name of the ideology of “civilisation” that was integral to the white man’s burden.
As an important vehicle for, among many other things, recording and transmitting individual and shared experiences, communicating critical messages, adding value to the enjoyment of life, conveying resistance and defiance, seeking individual and collective catharsis, and expressing collective identities, the arts are laden with relations of power arising from the welter of social contradictions that define society. In other words, the arts are neither socially neutral nor innocent; rather, they bear and in some cases convey the various social divisions that exist in society whether these be class, ethnic, racial, gender, or generational. As a vector of images and imaginings, the arts have, historically, been a powerful tool for social struggles, political propaganda and commercial advantage. This is evidenced as much in the conceptualisation of social relations that underpins the arts (such as painting, theatre, dance and performance, and films) as in the specific social division of labour that is built into the assignment of roles and the quest for empowerment through artistic expressions. Whether as metaphor for social inequalities/injustice, social resistance, the quest for social empowerment, or the projection of power, contentment, or hope, the arts present an exciting but much neglected terrain of gender research in the African academy.
Participants in the 2006 Gender Institute will be invited to, among other things, explore various aspects and dimensions of gender in the arts as captured in the historicaland contemporary experiences of Africa, beginning with the conceptual, methodological and empirical challenges which are posed, and proceeding from there to achieve interpretative critiques that might help to develop and deepen insights into the ways in which the arts are gendered. The multiple dimensions in which men and women are differentially represented in the arts, the ways in which the relationships between men and women are captured in artistic expressions, the gendered nature of some of the silences in artistic preservation of history and memory, and the statements that can be gleaned on the hopes and aspirations for the future.
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