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35 1. Portrait Photography: A Visual Currency in the Atlantic Visualscape J Ü R G S C H N E I D E R African historians’ interest in photographic sources is still rather recent and can be traced back to the mid-1980s. Today, after more than twenty years of research, we know the general outlines of the history of African photography, but have yet to move beyond the larger picture.1 In looking closely at some centers of the early history of West and Central African photography, such as Sierra Leone, Fernando Po, and Gabon, as well as at the professional careers of African photographers such as Francis W. Joaque, this essay will contribute to a better and deeper understanding of the early history of West and Central African photography . Particularly, it will show how portrait photographs served within what I term the “Atlantic visualscape” as a visual currency thus allowing “facework between absentees” in an increasingly globalized context.2 The Atlantic Visualscape The long contact between the Western world and Africa and hence between different cultures and continents, which intensified in the sixteenth century, created a space where images of all kinds circulated, were produced, and were consumed . Within this area of interaction Africans came in contact with drawings, oil paintings, lithographs, lantern slides, engravings in illustrated newspapers, illustrated books, and eventually photographs. For instance, during the reign of Jürg Schneider 36 Queen Victoria (who, like her husband Albert, was an early enthusiast of photography ) portraits of the Queen and the Royal Family were printed, painted, and engraved on various materials and came to be omnipresent throughout the British Empire.3 Evidently the appropriation of the West’s visual repertoire and practices did not occur without mutual misunderstandings, as the following incident shows: “When some natives took Catholic images brought to [Cuba] by Columbus’s men, buried them in a cultivated field and urinated on them in order to produce a rich harvest, the Spanish responded by burning the offenders to death.”4 However, many other sources point to a natural integration of the new images into Africans’ visual practices. According to the British trader John Whitford, King Eyo from Creek Town (near Bonny in the Niger Delta) had a portrait of Queen Victoria taken from the illustrated newspaper The Graphic hanging in his house.5 The prevalent habit of African elites of hanging up pictures of all kinds was also noticed by the French medical doctor Griffon de Bellay in the Gabon hinterland as early as 1862.6 Europeans and Americans in Africa and at home, at the same time, became acquainted with masks, sculptures, patterns, and drawings on cloth, walls, and bodies. Few, but quite illustrative, sources provide hints as to the practice of exchanging photographs in a way similar to how business cards are given to business partners today. The concept of the “Atlantic visualscape” draws on the seminal works of scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Paul Gilroy, Deborah Poole, Marie Louise Pratt, and Anthony Giddens.7 All of them point to the importance of considering an extended space—geographically, socially, politically, and economically—as a “contact zone” where a multitude of ideas, artifacts, and people circulated.8 Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic is well known and since its introduction in the early 1990s has triggered an ongoing thread of critical and fruitful discussion . Deborah Poole introduced the terms “image world” and “visual economy,” with which she sought to capture the complexity and multiplicity of the realm of images that we might imagine circulating among Europe, North America, and Andean South America.9 Appadurai, by undertaking an approach to a general theory of global cultural processes, employed a set of terms (ethnoscape, finanscape , technoscape, mediascape, ideoscape) to stress different streams or flows along which cultural material may be seen to be moving across national boundaries . Both Poole and Appadurai underline the simultaneously material and social A Visual Currency 37 nature of vision and representation which situates the Atlantic visualscape at the intersection of materiality and discourse.10 In her book Imperial Eyes, Marie Louise Pratt argued that travel reports “gave European reading publics a sense of ownership, entitlement and familiarity with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in, and colonized.”11 The ideas expressed by Pratt can be broadened into two directions: first, by including all potential readers, not only Europeans, within the Atlantic visualscape, and second, by merging them with Benedict Anderson’s notion...


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