- Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa
The study of visual culture is emerging as a scholarly field in its own right, and has focused a great deal of its attention upon the European imperial project. Recent books by James Ryan on British imperial photography or Assenka Oksiloff on German ethnographic cinema, for instance, describe the processes in which Europeans constructed colonial “Others” in the realm of the visual. The study of colonial image making, however, has remained largely within the bounds of Europe. It was with great excitement that I read the essay collection edited by Paul Landau and Deborah Kaspin on the visuality of colonial and postcolonial Africa. The essays do not disappoint; they present a strong and diverse collection that charts a new direction for Africanists and specialists in colonial and post-colonial studies, even as they offer a new and often-intriguing perspective to scholars of European and American visual culture.
The collection begins with a useful introduction by Landau that reflects upon notions of alterity, the nature of “art,” and debates about the “universal” apprehension of images. This introduction positions a theoretical discussion of visuality within a colonial and post-colonial framework, setting the stage for the essays that follow, all but one of which focus on sub-Saharan Africa. These twelve essays vary in the geographical breadth and historical depth of their approach. On the historical end, Landau’s own contribution details how the birth of photography intersected with colonialist categorization in Africa in the late nineteenth century. He argues that in the early twentieth century, photography helped to cement the notion of the “tribe” into structures of colonial administration. On the more contemporary side, Pippa Skotnes’ essay reflects on the configurations of politics and of racial thinking that surrounded her 1996 art installation Miscast at the South African National Gallery, which dramatically included casts of the bodies of Bushmen archived from the colonial era.
All twelve essays are thoughtful and informative; some, however, are real gems. One of these is Timothy Burke’s, which explores perspectives on the role of early cinema in East Africa and of advertising in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)-narratives of Europeans viewing Africans viewers, if you will. His investigation reveals an enduring trope, where Africans are seen (or feared) to grossly misunderstand the visual; this trope, he argues, lays bare an underlying unease of Europeans with modernity in the colonial context, with its ambiguity of visuality and its destabilizing operations of consumer culture. In a similar way, Eric Gable’s essay on “Bad Copies” focuses upon images themselves as a means to cut to the heart of the colonial relationship. Gable juxtaposes a Portuguese colonial administrator’s photo-documentation of Manjaco torso scarring with the appearance of carved European figures in Manjaco ancestor posts in Guinea-Bissau. He shows how these very different types of images are both “visible refractions of the same, by and large invisible subject”-that subject being the group of assimilated Manjaco who operated at the epicenter of colonial power. Gable argues that Portuguese colonialist ideology depended upon the effacement of this particular group. At the end of his essay, he points to the persistence of such colonialist notions of “authenticity” that continue to devalue African cultural practices of adoption, transformation, and copying vis-à-vis those of the West.
A fascinating essay by Henry John Drewel charts the journey of single image across Europe, Africa, and the Americas. A nineteenth-century German chromolithograph of an “exotic” Ceylonese snake charmer was appropriated by devotees of Mami Wata in central Africa, where the Orientalism of the image was re-inscribed as a European exotic “Other.” Ultimately, this image of Mami Wata was incorporated into Latino imagery of the Catholic Saint Marta, and thereafter into the artwork of a practitioner of Voodoo in Haiti. At every point, the image retained its role as an illustration of the exotic, even as the location and meaning of that “exotic” was dramatically reframed. Another exceptional essay that traces colonial...