Elisabeth L. Cameron, assistant professor of art history, has been honored with a Fulbright-Hays research grant to study African culture for the 2003-04 academic year. She is one of only 33 faculty nationwide to receive this prestigious award.
Cameron will travel to Zambia in September to examine the visual culture, gender roles, and power relationships of African women. She plans to stay with the same family she lived with in 1992-93, when she visited the country to conduct research for her dissertation under a previous Fulbright award.
Cameron asserts that visual culture is essential to an understanding of how African gender roles are defined and negotiated. During her last visit, she observed the visual enactment of women's initiation arts, as well as the participation of women in men's initiation practices. This involved celebrations of motherhood, incorporating such activities as scarification, body painting, dancing, and performance with masks. On her return trip, she plans to expand her research by taking a more holistic look at Zambian culture.
"What I've proposed to do now is come back 10 years later and be with the same family, but this time look at more than initiations," she explained. "I plan to live there for the whole calendar year and really document how women organize their visual environment, and how this establishes who they are as women. I also want to show how instrumental the visual culture is in defining masculinity."
Cameron noted that Zambian women determine men's behavior through their control of the domestic household spaces, architecture, and ritual performances. The women also manipulate the arts and visual elements surrounding events such as marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, healing ceremonies, masquerades, political meetings, and funerals. As a result, Cameron believes that gender roles and social customs depend primarily on how these women organize their visual environment.
Halfway through her previous research in 1992, Cameron made a fascinating discovery about the complexity of gender roles in Africa when she learned of Nyakulenga, a female chief in North-Western Province. In Zambia, the role of chief is considered masculine. Occasionally, a woman becomes chief, but though she plays the man's role in behavior and is in charge of men's affairs, she dresses and acts like a woman. Cameron likens this to finding Arnold Schwarzenegger acting hypermasculine as director of the National Organization for Women.
"It's really important to look at this because women in that area had a lot of power and authority in the past," Cameron explained. "Then the British came in and wiped out the power they had by superimposing a western model on top of an African model. We need to look at the older model--visually and through performance--so we can understand about cultures dominating other cultures and rectify misunderstandings produced by colonialism. We need to see if there is a way for women to take back the power they once had."
Cameron is a relatively new addition to the UCSC faculty. Prior to her appointment in 2001, she was associate curator of African art at the Los Angeles County Museum. She also served as curator of The Art of the Lega, a nationally touring exhibition produced by UCLA's Fowler Museum.