African Archaeological Review

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 129–148 | Cite as

Art, history, and gender: women and clay in West Africa

  • Marla C. Berns


Women dominate the production of pottery in Africa, yet few scholars have considered women the likely creators of the figurative ceramic sculpture recovered archaeologically across the savanna. Indeed, the question of who made these highly celebrated ceramics is rarely raised. A close look at the art historical and archaeological literature exposes the gender biases that privilege men's ‘high’ art over women's ‘low’ craft, making men the presumed creators of these works. Examples of women's predominance in the production of ritually-destined figurative ceramics in Nigeria alone counters such unsubstantiated assumptions. Through such production women play important roles in the construction of social and cultural meanings. It does make a difference in our reading and writing of history to understand and reconstruct what women make as well as what men make.


Cultural Study Gender Bias Cultural Meaning Archaeological Literature Production Woman 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Les femmes dominent la production d'objets en argile en Afrique, mais peu d'experts ont considéré les femmes comme créatrices probables des sculptures figuratives en céramique découvertes dans des fouilles archéologiques dans toute la savane. De fait, la question de savoir qui fabriquait ces céramiques hautement prisées est rarement soulevée. Une étude plus approfondie de la littérature ayant trait à l'histoire de l'art et à l'archéologie met en évidence les partis pris sexuels qui privilégient l'art ‘élevé’ des hommes par rapport à l'artisanat ‘vulgaire’ des femmes, faisant des hommes les créateurs présumés de ces oeuvres. Des exemples de la prédominance des femmes dans la production de figurines rituelles en céramique au Nigéria contredisent ces suppositions non prouvées. Par cette production, les femmes jouent un rôle important dans l'élaboration de notions sociales et culturelles. Comprendre et reconstruire ce que font les femmes, de même que ce que font les hommes, nous fait lire et écrire l'histoire différemment.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Adams, M. 1986. Women and masks among the Western We of the Ivory Coast.African Arts 19(2):46–54, 90.Google Scholar
  2. Arnold, D. 1985.Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Aronson, L. 1991. African women in the visual arts.Signs 16:550–74.Google Scholar
  4. Atkinson, J. M. 1982. Review essay: anthropology.Signs 8:236–58.Google Scholar
  5. Barley, N. 1984. Placing the West African potter. InEarthenware in Asia and Africa (ed. J. Picton): pp. 93–103. London: University of London Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art.Google Scholar
  6. Bassing, A. 1973. Grave monuments of the Dakakari.African Arts 6(4):36–9.Google Scholar
  7. Ben-Amos, P. 1973. Symbolism in Olokun mud art.African Arts 6(4):28–31.Google Scholar
  8. Ben-Amos, P. 1980.The Art of Benin. London: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar
  9. Ben-Amos, P. 1986. Artistic creativity in Benin Kingdom.African Arts 19(3):60–3, 83.Google Scholar
  10. Berns, M. C. 1986.Art and History in the Lower Gongola Valley. Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
  11. Berns, M. C. 1988. Ga'anda scarification: a model for art and identity. InMarks of Civilization: artistic transformations of the human body (ed. A. Rubin): pp. 57–76. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.Google Scholar
  12. Berns, M. C. 1989. Ceramic clues: art history in the Gongola Valley.African Arts 22(2):48–59, 102.Google Scholar
  13. Biebuyck, D. (ed.) 1969.Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  14. Blier, S. P. 1988/89. Art systems and semiotics: the question of art, craft, and colonial taxonomies in Africa.American Journal of Semiotics 6:7–18.Google Scholar
  15. Bradley, H. 1989.Men's Work, Women's Work: a sociological history of the sexual division of labour in employment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  16. Braithwaite, M. 1982. Decoration as ritual symbol: a theoretical proposal and an ethnographic study in southern Sudan. InSymbolic and Structural Archaeology (ed. I. Hodder): pp. 80–8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Brown, J. 1989. The beginnings of pottery as an economic process. InWhat's New? a closer look at the process of innovation (ed. S. E. van der Leeuw and R. Torrence): pp. 203–24. London: Unwin Hyman.Google Scholar
  18. Chappel, T. J. H. 1973. The death of a cult in Northern Nigeria.African Arts 6(4):70–4.Google Scholar
  19. Coart, E. and de Hauleville, A. 1907.Notes Analytiques sur les Collections Ethnographiques du Musée du Congo: la céramique. Tervuren: Musée du Congo.Google Scholar
  20. Cole, H. M. 1989.Icons: ideals and power in the art of Africa. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  21. Cole, H. M. and Aniakor, C. 1984.Igbo Arts: community and cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.Google Scholar
  22. Cole, H. M. and Ross, D. H. 1977.The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.Google Scholar
  23. Conkey, M. W. and Gero, J. M. (eds). 1991. Tensions, pluralities, and engendering archaeology: an introduction to women and prehistory. InEngendering Archaeology: women and prehistory (eds J. M. Gero and M. W. Conkey): pp. 3–30. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  24. Conkey, M. W. and Spector, J. 1984. Archaeology and the study of gender. InAdvances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7:1–38.Google Scholar
  25. Darish, P. 1990.Fired Brilliance: ceramic vessels from Zaire. Kansas City: The University of Missouri.Google Scholar
  26. d'Azevedo, W. L. (ed.). 1973.The Traditional Artist in African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  27. David, N. and Hennig, H. 1972.The Ethnography of Pottery: a Fulani case seen in archaeological perspective. McCaleb Module in Anthropology from Addison-Wesley Modular Publications, 21.Google Scholar
  28. David, N., Sterner, J. and Gavua, K. 1988. Why pots are decorated.C.A. 29:365–89.Google Scholar
  29. Drewal, H. J. and Drewal, M. T. 1983.Gelede: art and female power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Drewal, H. J. and Pemberton, J. with Abiodun, R. 1989.Yoruba: nine centuries of African art and thought. New York: Center for African Art.Google Scholar
  31. Drost, D. 1968. Töpferei in Afrika: oekonomie und soziologie.Jahrbuch des Museums für Volkerkunde du Leipzig 25:131–270.Google Scholar
  32. Eyo, E. 1980. Introduction.Treasures of Ancient Nigeria. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  33. Fagg, B. 1977.Nok Terracottas. Lagos/London: Nigerian Museum/Ethnographica.Google Scholar
  34. Fagg, W. 1963.Nigerian Images. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  35. Fagg, W. 1969. The African artist. InTradition and Creativity in Tribal Art (ed. D. Biebuyck): pp. 42–57. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  36. Fagg, W. and Picton, J. 1970.The Potter's Art in Africa. London: British Museum.Google Scholar
  37. Gardi, R. 1969.African Crafts and Craftsmen. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.Google Scholar
  38. Gero, J. M. and Conkey, M. W. (eds) 1991.Engendering Archaeology: women and prehistory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  39. Gillon, W. 1984.A Short History of African Art. New York: Facts on File.Google Scholar
  40. Glaze, A. 1981.Art and death in a Senufo village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Glaze, A. 1986. Dialectics of gender in Senufo masquerades.African Arts 19(3):30–9, 82.Google Scholar
  42. Gouma-Peterson, T. and Mathews, P. 1987. The feminist critique of art history.Art Bulletin 69:326–57.Google Scholar
  43. Hare, J. N. 1983.Itinate and Kwandalowa: ritual pottery of the Cham, Mwana and Longuda peoples of Nigeria. London: Ethnographica.Google Scholar
  44. Herbert, E. forthcoming.Iron, Gender, and Power: rituals of transformation in African societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Hodder, I. 1986.Reading the Past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Isichei, E. 1983.History of Nigeria. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  47. Kramer, C. 1985. Ceramic ethnoarchaeology.A.R.A. 14:77–102.Google Scholar
  48. Kreamer, C. M. 1989. The social and economic implications of Moba male and female pottery traditions. Paper presented at the Eighth Triennial Symposium on African Art, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  49. Krieger, K. 1969.Westafrikanische Plastik, II. Berlin: Museum für Volkerkunde.Google Scholar
  50. Lebeuf, J. P. and Lebeuf, A. M. D. 1977.Les Arts des Sao. Paris: Chêene.Google Scholar
  51. Leith-Ross, S. 1970.Nigerian Pottery. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Leoni, D. and Pritchett, J. 1978. Traditional Hausa pottery in Zaria City.Savanna 7(1):3–16.Google Scholar
  53. McGaw, J. A. 1989. No passive victims, no separate spheres: a feminist perspective on technology's history. InHistory and the History of Technology: essays in honor of Melvin Kranzberg (eds S. H. Cutcliffe and R. Post): pp. 172–91. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press.Google Scholar
  54. McIntosh, S. K. and McIntosh, R. J. 1986. Recent archaeological research and dates from West Africa.J.A.H. 27:413–42.Google Scholar
  55. McLeod, M. 1984. Akan terracotta. InEarthenware in Asia and Africa (ed. J. Picton): pp. 365–80. London: University of London Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art.Google Scholar
  56. Meek, C. K. 1931.A Sudanese Kingdom: an ethnological study of the Jukun-speaking peoples of Nigeria. London: Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  57. Moore, H. L. 1988.Feminism and Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  58. Na'Ibi, S. and Hassan, A. n.d.The Gwari Tribe in Abuja Emirate. Lagos: Nigeria Magazine special publication.Google Scholar
  59. Nochlin, L. 1988.Women, Art and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  60. Pfaffenberger, B. 1988. Fetished objects and humanised nature: towards an anthropology of technology.Man (n.s.) 23:236–52.Google Scholar
  61. Pollock, G. 1983. Women, art and ideology: questions for feminist art historians.Women's Art Journal 4:39–47.Google Scholar
  62. Rosaldo, M. Z. 1980. The use and abuse of anthropology: reflections on feminism and cross-cultural understanding.Signs 5:389–417.Google Scholar
  63. Schaedler, K. F. 1985.Ceramics from Black-Africa and Ancient America: the Hans Wolf Collection-Zurich. Zurich.Google Scholar
  64. Schildkrout, E., Hellman, J. and Keim, C. 1989. Mangbetu pottery: tradition and innovation in Northeast Zaire.African Arts 22(2):38–47, 102.Google Scholar
  65. Scott, J. 1986. Gender: a useful category of historical analysis.American Historical Review 91:1053–75.Google Scholar
  66. Shaw, T. 1981. The Nok sculptures of Nigeria.S.A. 244:154–66.Google Scholar
  67. Sieber, R. 1961.Sculpture of Northern Nigeria. New York: The Museum of Primitive Art.Google Scholar
  68. Sieber, R. 1980.African Furniture and Household Objects. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  69. Speight, C. F. 1983.Hands in Clay. An Introduction to Ceramics. Palo Alto: Mayfield.Google Scholar
  70. Stössel, A. 1984.Afrikanische Keramik: traditionelle handwerkskunst südlich der Sahara. Munich: Hirmer.Google Scholar
  71. Teilhet, J. H. 1978. The equivocal role of women artists in non-literate cultures.Heresies 4:96–102.Google Scholar
  72. Thompson, R. F. 1969. Abatan: a master potter of the Egbado Yoruba. InTradition and Creativity in Tribal Art (ed. D. Biebuyck). Los Angeles.Google Scholar
  73. Trowell, M. 1970.Classical African Sculpture. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  74. Vansina, J. 1984.Art History in Africa. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  75. Willett, F. 1967.Ife in the History of West African Sculpture. New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  76. Wright, R. P. 1991. Women's labor and pottery production in prehistory. InEngendering Archaeology: women and prehistory (eds J. M. Gero and M. W. Conkey): pp. 194–223. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Cambridge University Press 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marla C. Berns

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations