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When I first entered The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s African Arts section, the Dogon hermaphrodite figure with raised arms caught my attention. I was not sure what gender this piece of art was which prompted me to analyze the role of gender in African art. Realism is not necessarily the goal of African artwork and many types of work include forms of abstraction. The body parts on a sculpture different facial and structural features on the artwork itself can help differentiate the gender the artist is trying to portray on their work. Sometimes this will not suffice.
There are other trends that artists use to help distinguish gender in their work. Customary social roles in Africa help to emphasize the differences in gender and are portrayed throughout the artwork. For example, the “kneeling female figure with three children” from the Dogon culture shows a woman as a nurturer. The features of the figure do not explicitly guarantee that this is a woman, however the large stomach and breasts suggests this is a woman whom was just pregnant and is nurturing her children. Being a mother is extremely momentous in African culture and is often depicted in the artwork.
Another piece of work that shows how certain African qualities can help depict gender is the artwork called pendent mask. On the face of the mask you can see four scarification marks which, in African culture identifies only with women. On the contrary, the piece named the seated male figure created by the dogons depicts a figure sitting down with armor all over him and a weapon in hand. This artwork does not explicitly show any male distinctive features; however, it depicts a male social role. I also looked at similar pieces of art that were named Gwandusu, which portrays a mother and child and Gwantigi which portrays a seated man with a weapon. You may be able to identify the gender of these pieces of art by looking at its physical features however, the role of the figure helps to better identify its gender. The woman’s full breasts represent the fact that she is able to care for her child. She is also wearing a hat with diamonds on it that represent her being powerful or significant woman.
Gwantigi, the male figure shows a warrior that is wearing head gear and is holding a weapon. Gwantigi is sitting in what appears to be a throne to show his status as a leader. In many African cultures, males are usually represented as the dominant figure. An example I was able to find illustrating the male dominant social norm being shown in art was the Kongo Power figure. The following statement is part of the description on the power figure from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “That power was represented as a presiding authority and enforcing lord or king. Its crowning element is the distinctive headdress worn by chiefs or priests. The figure’s posture and gesture, leaning forward with hands placed akimbo on the hips, is the aggressive attitude of one who challenges fearlessly.” I was unable to find any power figure that was identified as a woman, therefore showing the social norm of male dominance expressed in the art.
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