A portrait of women and girls of African descent at the Ruzafa Estudio cultural space in Valencia. Photo credit: ALBERTO PLA.
It has been estimated that one third of the more than 15 million African people who were sold in the course of the transatlantic slave trade were women and girls. They took with them knowledge, traditions and customs that have influenced every continent, giving rise to new cultures throughout history. However, barely any literature exists on the role of women of African descent when it comes to the safeguarding of African cultural heritage.
In response to this, UNESCO adopted the 24th of January as World Day for African and Afrodescendant Culture, with a particular focus on the myriad contributions made by women to the history and cultural legacy of Black peoples. Contributions that have been passed down from generation to generation: religious beliefs to culinary customs, learning ancestral languages, using medicinal plants and traditional skin and hair care are among the elements that have helped to build Black identities.
According to a number of historians, in many societies in pre-colonial Africa, in other words, before the continent was divided up among various European powers, women were at the heart of decision-making processes in politics, the army, public life and the production of goods. However, colonialism brought with it the sexual division of labour that largely relegated women to the home and caregiving sphere. Despite this, and thanks to oral traditions, they continued being the guardians of ancestral knowledge that has made a vital contribution to science and wellbeing worldwide.
A good example of this is the impact that traditional midwifery has had on Western medicine by transferring knowledge that guarantees a dignified and humane maternal experience before, during and after birth. In Colombia’s Pacific region alone, where over 90% of the population is of African descent, there are an estimated 1,800 midwives. Thus, in December 2023, traditional midwifery was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO for being an ancestral profession that saves lives and prevents maternal mortality in hard to reach rural areas.
In traditional African societies, it is mothers who are chiefly responsible for passing on the valuable heritage of native languages to their children. As a result, and despite the absorption of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish imposed by colonisers, some 2,000 African languages not only still act as instruments of communication, but also enable the construction of the collective memory and identity of the people who speak them.
As with languages, hair is a means of identity and resistance for people of African descent. Hair is not a trivial matter, because, historically, some communities have used hairstyles to express their origins, marital status, social standing and/or religion. Similarly, cornrows were used to indicate escape routes to helped men and women flee slavery. By the same token, natural Afro hair inspired the aesthetics of activists in the civil rights movement in the United States (1954-1968) and, even today, it continues to challenge Eurocentric canons of beauty.
It is precisely in the fashion and beauty industries where the appropriation of African cultural expressions is most egregious. Many international brands still copy traditional clothing and hairstyles without due recognition, stripping them of their original meaning in order to commercialise them.
Even in the 20th century, it was common for African cultural heritage to be appropriated to create new artistic styles and movements. Picasso’s early Cubist works, for example, were based on the geometric African masks that reached Europe from West Africa as a result of colonial conquest.
As such, we cannot commemorate World Day for African and Afrodescendant Culture without honouring the women who, throughout history, spearheaded resistance movements against the cultural plundering of the continent. South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, Afro-Peruvian choreographer and composer Victoria Santa Cruz and the African American sculptor Augusta Savage are among the thousands of Black women who, in the modern age, have used art as a vehicle for political expression to combat racism, sexism and colonialism. To this day, their achievements continue to inspire many feminists from different regions in their struggle to decolonise Africa’s cultural memory and the continent’s Diaspora.