Gender Binaries in African photography

A contribution to CPLA NEWS 2019 #02 Issue on Gender binaries in African photography, 2019

Addressing the issue of gender through the lens of photography can be a delicate exercise when one knows that the look of an image may vary according to the viewer. The debate on gender is a major topic of discussion in the world today, but on the continent, it still seems preliminary even though Africa is home to several formerly matrilineal societies.
As a result, there have been various movements by the so-called “feminine” gender to fight for equality and justice in a world that has become more and more patriarchal and capitalist since colonization.
In 2004, the writer and musician Koppo released the hit Emma, that talks about his adventures in the city of Yaoundé as he decided to flirt with someone who appeared to be a very attractive lady. Bringing her back home at night, he discovered that the beautiful Emma was in fact intersex: she had a woman’s body with male genitalia. This was a situation that the society in which I grew up was not used to talking about because it appeared obvious that an individual’s identity was defined by their sex: you were either a man or a woman. The conscious or subconscious notion of what makes a man and woman determines the modes of behaviours, lifestyles, as well as ways of dressing. This specific structure that only recognizes these two genders has had consequences in the distribution of social roles, often reflected in photographic practice.
Before the 50s and 60s, although photography was practiced by a good number of artists on the continent, it was mainly influenced by the Western view of society: an exoticized, anthropological and touristic gaze. Naked women in groups often accompanied by children would pose in front of huts or in the kitchen, while men with bare torsos and pronounced muscles would have tools of labour. After independence studio photography was born and was particularly dominated by portraits, which facilitated the reading and decoding of pictures.
Gender roles were constructed and made easily perceptible through composition. Women would portray the role of mother,  girl, future wife, or bride. Even accessories informed the clear division that existed between men and women.

Necklaces, bracelets, earrings and large dresses usually completely covered the bodies of women, unlike the lightness and openness of clothing for men. Moreover, the sets and backgrounds were generally saturated for women.
The work by Malick Sidibé, Déjà Futurs Amoureux (1976), portrays two children, a boy and a girl, and how their genders play a central role in defining their individual futures in society. The closed studio space also became a place of intimacy between the model and photographer. Although this was rare, some models offered themselves the freedom to break social norms. The of full-length portrait by Sidibé of two young women dressed in pants and posing with cigarettes in hand is a good example.

In the 70s and 80s, when photography was also express outside the studio, several photographers’ work presented a radical change in this split between man and woman and all the stereotypes attributed to them. Artists distorted the heteronormative gaze by playing with cultural codes through composition, set design, the models’ poses and clothes. In society, we find evidence of contradictory representations of gender where boys wear skirts or dresses in the same contexts that favour gender division, such as church. Simultaneously, photographers are taking a stand on such issues through self-portraits and composite imaging. The photo series by Samuel Fosso, often called the “Man of a Thousand Faces”, plays a lot with traditional paradigms of identity as predefined by societal constructions of gender. Through his self-portraits, he explores the instability of identity by demonstrating the constant transformation of gender and sexuality. In his photo, La Bourgeoise (1997), Samuel plays with his own body by presenting himself in the body of a ‘woman’ who took possession of his male body with a beauty so striking represented by attire,
accessories, makeup and posture.

Aude Christel Mgba , 2019