- Expressions of the Body: Representations in African Text and Image
The first striking thing for this reviewer of Expressions of the Body: Representations in African Text and Image is the accessibility of the essays gathered in the volume. The contributors seem to have gone to great lengths to ease readers' passage through complex theoretical and specialized issues. This is appropriate for the volume given its interdisciplinary nature. Concerned with the semiotic significance of the body, its cultural constitution as a site of identity and of abuse, Expressions of the Body presents sixteen essays from the diverse but related fields of literature, fine art, history, photography, sociology, and education.
The editor is quick to point out that not much work has been done on the body in cultural theory, as a result of which, in her view, there is no "consensus" on what constitutes the body. There is an even greater dearth of studies on the African body, all the more remarkable for its being ubiquitous in African orality, texts, and images. It is in this light that this volume occupies a vital position in contemporary African scholarship.
Expressions of the Body is divided into four parts under the headings of "The Power of Representation," "The Transgressive Potential of the Body," "Representation and Resistance," and "Re-presenting the Body." One can understand from these headings that the body is approached through disparate perspectives, with emphasis on the crisis of representation, the body's potentials for subversion, and the discourse power surrounding the use and abuse of the body. For instance, in his contribution entitled "Powerful Representations: The Human Body in Eighteenth Century Benin Art," Ndubuisi Ezeluomba examines how in eighteenth-century Benin, the kingdom's traditional rulers used (and abused) the body in the form of art objects to "manipulate events by subtly distorting history." Through embodiment, the artists were able to represent or distort sociopolitical realities.
Two chapters focus on albinism in Africa, mainly foregrounding the misperception and social stigma surrounding it. Medard Djatou's "The 'Wrong' Colour? Representations and Perceptions of Albinism among the Bamileke of Western Cameroon" informs the reader of the attitudes the Bamileke display towards those among them who have albinism. These attitudes, which are far from being humane, are passed from generation to generation through myths and orality. Charlotte Baker and Patricia Lund's "A Visible Difference: Images of Black African People with Albinism" traces the mistreatment of people with albinism through the past three hundred years, when they were exhibited as objects of fascination. The study contends that over the years there has been a shift in the way societies perceive people with albinism, largely because of the "genetic explanations for the condition" and the "positive self-representation" of people living with albinism.
A number of the chapters in this volume are textual studies of creative works that consciously dramatize the body. These studies deploy the theoretical thoughts of literary and cultural theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Homi [End Page 140] Bhabha, Judith Butler, Edward Said, and Julia Kristeva. Heather Hewett, in her "Translating Desire: Exile and Leila Aboulela's Poetics of Embodiment," reads Aboulela's novel The Translator with a focus on how it represents Muslim women's bodies in a multicultural setting. It is Hewett's conclusion that in Sammar, the protagonist of The Translator, Aboulela achieves a "fusing of mind and body" not only on the level of action and interaction but also on that of language.
The body as a subject of scholarship in African studies, as the essays in this volume anticipate or predict, will generate more studies. The interdisciplinary range of this volume will appeal to readers, students and scholars from different fields.