We speak of gender when it comes to the question of which examples from visual culture should be shown and utilised in school classrooms as well as in public spaces in order to fulfil the current demands for inclusion, equality, and sustainability in global cooperation (UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Goals 4 and 5).


Bea Lundt

What it is about: An Introduction

The traditional selection of works of cultural self-representation in countries of the so-called Western world (Heinrich August Winkler) has been defined almost entirely by men, who have determined the conditions for the production and the reception of the objects and, in part, still determine these conditions. In the process, certain ideas of male creativity, a corresponding cult of genius, and a structural anchoring and organisational execution of these ideas in groups and networks of the so-called ‘avant-garde’ have dominated since around the middle of the 18th century. The selection of works considered valuable took place under exclusion of other criteria and persons (Söll in Kortendiek).


The perspective of gender presents us with a series of tasks we need to complete in order to fulfil the duty of redetermining this selection of works on the basis of cultural multiplicity (Ernst Wagner). First, we need to re-evaluate female activities and creative achievements in this area and make them (more) visible. Concurrently, we need to demystify and deconstruct heroising stereotypes of masculinity. We still need to rethink and discuss those images of gender that are circulated as part of canon and have influenced the views and ideas of a broad public. (I have provided examples for each of these three points).


For a sustainable reorientation, it is also important to ‘question the premises’ (Söll, p. 609), under which this marginalisation of femininity has taken place. Only when the societal causes and prerequisites for these structural inequalities and injustices are known can the whole context be arranged to fulfil the goals of the 2030 Agenda. We need impulses for a gender-equitable, inclusive production and gender-sensitive reception of visual culture in the future.


What is ‘gender’? Definitions in ‘Western’ gender research

The factor of ‘gender’ is a central category for differentiating between humans. It generally divides people along two dimensions: male and female. Numerous other criteria are included in order to manifest characteristics and particularities of individuals and groups: age, social and regional origin, class, (socioeconomic) status, ethnicity, religion or spiritual community, physical and psychological state, and sexual orientation. In addition, all of these factors operate within the dimensions of space and time (‘entangled history’). Within this broad spectrum, we are able to develop a field of knowledge on the variety of human life with numerous relationships, networks, overlaps, and connections. This observation of gender within the interplay of various criteria is called ‘intersectionality’. Ideas of what is considered typical or even ideal for the one or the other gender changes historically and culturally and depicts societal constructs that are called ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ (various articles in Kortendiek et al.). These are often consolidated into concrete patterns that can become socially dominant. The Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell describes images of masculinity in the modern period and defines one of them as ‘hegemonial’ in the power discourse with respect to other, concurrently existing types of masculinity.


Polarising ways of thinking and their elimination: The situation in the ‘Western world’ in light of the challenges of globalisation

In the last several decades thinking about gender in the so-called ‘Western world’ has undergone a process which has led to decisive changes. Since the end of the 18th century, certain ideas of a natural, or biologically determined and, therefore immutable, polar dichotomy of characteristics of the two sexes have served as a model, particularly for the middle classes. These characteristics are realised for men in ‘public’ life spheres and for women in ‘private’ spaces as well as for both in heterosexual norms for the division of roles throughout the life cycle. This binary structure was laid out hierarchically, whereby the female part was subordinated to the male (Opitz). Thinking in dualisms, characteristic of modern imperialist nation states in Europe and other regions counted as part of the ‘global North’, took on a form that was based on the idea of unity within stable, closed borders: unity of folk, religion, culture, and language. This concept defined the ‘native’ and legitimised the marginalisation of individuals and groups considered ‘foreign’; it encouraged racism and wars and erupted in excesses of violence during this extreme century (Wolfgang Reinhard).


This concept of ‘modernity’ has been strongly criticised e.g. by post-colonial groups and the sustainability movement, especially because of its unscrupulous and unjust growth model but also because of its essentialist ideas of gender. In international declarations like the 2030 Agenda, the member states of the international community have pledged to abandon the dichotomous model of European modernity as an ideal and point of reference against which regions are to measure themselves. In the sense of the newly defined sustainability goals, all countries are deficient; this is also true in the case of gender equality (2030 Agenda, Goal 5).


The assumption of a dual gender structure, which was a central part of that understanding of the world as comprising polar opposites, has been dissolved with various declarations at the German national as well as the international level. In its place came knowledge of the variety of gender manifestations, which expanded and pluralised the previous order. As a consequence, in 2019, Germany created a third category (‘diverse’) for gender as a way of identifying oneself in official documents.


While gender concepts in the West are often precipitately understood to be universally valid, this paradigm change brings with it a new openness for a further loosening of previously rigid ideas of gender. In the course of globalisation, the question has more clearly been raised of which concepts for differences between people have developed in the ‘global South’ and which practices shape the everyday lives of men and women there. Answers to such questions expand our knowledge of the variety of global visual offerings, but they also demand reflection on previous catalogues as a prerequisite for the necessary correction of archaic images and prejudicial stereotypes. In so doing, we can prepare avenues of cooperation through dialogue on a transcultural level.


Gender is variety: Criticism from African scholars of ‘Western’ gender discourse

Scholars from the ‘global South’, e.g. from different African countries, have repeatedly criticised ‘Gender Studies’ as orienting itself on a unilateral concept of gender that had been developed in and is valid only for Western modernity (Oyewumi, Kelly). In particular, they reject the performativity theses of Judith Butler. This most influential American feminist assumes that gender is a linguistic and, therefore, variable convention that results from certain powerful interests in a heterosexual social order. African scholars accuse her of presenting an unrealistic perspective in her attempt to de-biologize gender.


However, it is not only the central concept of ‘gender’ in the research that is criticised on the African part. The investigative horizon and casting of the problems, the focus of topics on certain regions (metropolitan areas) and social groups (the middle class and the elite), as well as the research instruments, are said to be Eurocentric since they originate in the scientific cultures and traditions of the Western world, e.g. in its fixation on written sources under neglect of other forms of transfer and the performative handling of narratives.


This puts the validity of the entire area of ‘gender studies’ in the dock. However, this criticism extends far beyond a subject-internal research controversy. Rather, it is being repeatedly expressed in the political arena and directed against the self-image of the so-called ‘Western world’ and the corresponding definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’, whereby the latter, measured against ‘Western’ norms, is considered deficient. This condescending view of gender relations in Africa has been used to legitimise paternalist, indeed neocolonial actions that have affected e.g. the area of formal education.


African scholars respond that in their countries before the colonial period, no corresponding dual gender structures existed but rather a permeable, fluid one. ‘Gender’ had never been a criterion for an essential differentiation between persons. It was the invaders that attempted to introduce their normative order of separating of people into different spheres of life. In this way, female areas of employment and income were given to men; women were expected to fulfil their exclusive duties in family and home. In addition, many men were ripped from their families and used for forced labour, e.g. road construction, in distant areas. Traditional forms of cohabitation, e.g. polygamy and matriliny, were discredited. At the same time, the colonial masters unscrupulously fulfilled their own sexual desires: abuse, rape, and mistreatment were daily occurrences. The colonial masters seldom took responsibility for the children they sired. Correspondingly, the current situation in postcolonial Africa is characterised by a great degree of hybridity: there has been a certain integration and continued development of the imposed structures as well as a re-establishment of precolonial patterns of cohabitation that had survived (Kam Kah, Cole et al., Ampofo). It is clear that ‘gender’ presents a key topic for confronting colonial history since it is deeply entrenched in the structures of everyday life.


In such transcultural gender discourse, we must additionally consider that the overwhelmingly oral tradition and the theft of written records and material objects by the colonial masters place the now-independent countries in a position that demands appropriate consideration of these particularities, attention that has not been found in the global discourse until now (Sarr, Savoy).


Tasks and perspectives

Consensus agrees that the complete dominance of Western discourse at all levels of the research environment, as well as in everyday gender culture (and not only there), must be dismantled. The dissolution of thinking in polarities and the acceptance of all genders in different spheres of action within the ‘Western world’ represent a convergence of concepts (Kam Kah, Lundt). This presents an opportunity for dialogue and exchange. The topic of visual culture is especially fitting for such a convergence since it places other forms of experience than written documents in the centre.


Especially important for cooperation is personal encounters in the respective other countries which allow perception of ‘local knowledge’ in its context of origin and give it function. In the process, we should reflect on other perspectives. The two worlds do not encounter each other in isolation but rather have infiltrated one another in various ways for centuries (‘entangled history’), e.g. through hybrid population structures as well as groups in the diaspora.


Translated by Kelly Thompson

This paper is a theoretical reflection of three chapters on the Website:


  • Making women visible: Paintings showing Christine de Pizan, an independent woman and creative writer of the 15th century in Europe
  • Deconstructing masculinities and male power in European History: A famous portrait of the French King Louis XIV from the 17/18th century.
  • Decoding a mythic figure as part of the symbolic order: A statue and paintings of the figure of a mermaid 19/20th century. 



  • Akosua Adomako Ampofo: Gender and Society in Africa. An Introduction. In: Takyiwaa Manuh, Esi Sutherland-Addy (eds.): Africa in Contemporary Perspective. A Textbook for Undergraduate Students, Accra 2013, pp. 94-115.
  • Judith Butler: Gender Trouble, Routledge Classics 2006.
  • Catherine M. Cole, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan F. Miescher (eds.): Africa after Gender, Indiana University Press 2007.
  • Raewyn Connell: Gender in World Perspective (Polity Short Introductions), 4th edition 2020 (first published in 2014).
  • Anke Graneß, Martina Kopf, Magdalena Kraus: Feministische Theorie aus Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Stuttgart 2019.
  • Henry Kam Kah: The Sacred Forest. Gender and Matriliny in the Laimbwe History (Cameroon), c. 1750-2001, Berlin 2015.
  • Ibid. and Bea Lundt (eds.): Polygamous Ways of Life Past and Present in Africa and Europe, Zürich 2020.
  • Natasha A. Kelly (ed.): Schwarzer Feminismus Grundlagentexte, Münster 2019.
  • Bea Lundt: Geschlechtergeschichte an einer Hochschule in Ghana (Westafrika). In: Anna Becker, Almut Höfert, et al. (eds.): Körper-Macht-Geschlecht (commemorative publication for Claudia Opitz.), Frankfurt/ New York 2020, pp. 123-134 (in print).
  • Oyeronké Oyewumi: Colonizing Bodies and Minds. Gender and Colonialism. In: ibid (ed.): Invention of Women. Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, Minneapolis 1997, pp. 121-156.
  • Claudia Opitz-Belakhal: Geschlechtergeschichte (Historische Einführungen, 2010, 2nd edition 2018, 3rd edition 2020, Campus Verlag.
  • Wolfgang Reinhard: Empires and Encounters 1350-1750, Harvard University Press 2015.
  • Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy: Zurückgeben. Über die Restitution afrikanischer Kulturgüte, Berlin 2019. Translated from the French.
  • Anne Söll: Kunstwissenschaft und Bildende Künste: von männlicher Dominanz, feministischen Interventionen und queeren Perspektiven in der Visuellen Kultur. In: Beate Kortendiek et al. (eds.): Handbuch Interdisziplinäre Geschlechterforschung, 2 vols., Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2019, vol. 1, pp. 609-618.
  • United Nations: Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (a.k.a. the 2030 Agenda), https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld. Accessed on 6 September 2020.
  • Ernst Wagner: Kritik am Kanon und Aufgaben in: ?
  • Heinrich August Winkler: The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914-1945, Yale University Press 2015.