Aria Bowes

Gender in African Cultures Throughout History (excerpt)

Class of: 2021

Major: Integrated Design BFA

Medium: Paper

Faculty: Krista Johanssen

Prompt: My classmates and I were asked to curate a gallery exhibition, based on a research topic of our choice, using objects that we had studied in class.

My gallery exhibition focuses on representations of gender in African cultures throughout history. I look specifically at the helmet masks worn by the Elephant and Sande Sowei Helmet masks of the Bamileke and Mende cultures (respectively) of Cameroon and Sierra Leone (respectively). I also analyze representations of Akhenaten during his reign. All of this research is used to prove that the rules and confines of gender seem to be getting stricter with time and civic development. Rather than moving towards liberation in our advancement we are creating more boxes to cram ourselves into. Maybe these cultures have something to offer in terms of our relationship to the social construct that is gender.

Gender is a meaningless social construct which dictates the journey of many lives at varying levels of rigidity. This adherence to the belief in gender translates into social customs and norms, politics, the economy, and art. Through Greek sculptures we learn about the factors that comprise the perfect man or woman, not just in terms of beauty, but in terms of character as well. The same can be said for any civilisation. Since many artistic depictions are idealizations of real life, looking at certain artifacts of a certain culture, time or place can reveal a lot about the ideals and societal expectations of men and women. Looking into the art of Ancient Egyptians and the Mende and Bamileke peoples of Sierra Leone, it became clear that these cultures did not share the same views on gender as many modern western societies.

Starting with Akhenaten in Ancient Egypt, the differences between depictions of man and woman become blurred. When Akhenaten came into power, he brought with him an entirely new way of life. He was very dedicated to beauty. In the art of the period, this meant that depictions of Akhenaten’s figure lent themselves toward a more typically feminine view. He was rendered with “fleshy, almost female breasts, [and] swollen thighs.” Though this change was at first assumed to be realistic, it was later discovered that this depiction was the result of “new stylistic conventions” enforced under Akhenaten (R. Krauss 2003). The vast changes that took place under Akhenaten caused the art to depict the pharaoh with uncharacteristically feminine traits. This is indicative of a more expansive view on what it meant to be male, beautiful and powerful in Egypt at the time. It may not have been agreed upon by the public, but the fact that the ruler of the nation advocated for a more sexually ambiguous depiction of himself is meaningful. Additionally, “among the surviving colossal statues of Akhenaten in the earlier style, created for the Aten Temple at Karnak, is a nude figure without male genitalia that may represent Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti” (Krauss 2003). Because Akhenaten is feminized to the point of total obscurity, it becomes hard to be sure of anyone’s gender in the art of the time. It is easiest to see this depiction in the Steles depicting Akhenaten and his family.

In this 1360 Stele of Akhenaten and family beneath the aten (sun), it is difficult to distinguish the pharaoh from his wife. They share similar features
including elongated faces, their posture and their garments. While one figure seems to have breasts, the figure with the flatter chest is displayed in a more maternal manner. The main indication of identity in this piece, has nothing to do with gender but rather hierarchical scale. Akhenaten is simply larger than any other figure, because he is the ruler.


R. Krauss. “Akhenaten.” . Accessed May 4, 2018. 84446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000001359.