The weekend after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, AIAC’s Sean Jacobs and I (we’re academics in our day jobs) attended Encounters with the African Archive, a symposium at New York University. The symposium coincided with the exhibition series Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive at The Walther Collection Project Space, and was intended to create an opportunity to “exchange, debate, and open up the categories—colonial, ethnographic, anthropological, and artistic—that are often used to describe historic and contemporary photographs of Africans.” The end result of all of this—the symposium and the three-part exhibition—will be a book. A couple of the presenters and respondents began by expounding passionately about the need to get away from the overused phrase, the “colonial gaze”; some respondents and presenters expressed irritation that students throw “colonial gaze” out almost as often as the phrase “male gaze” when they critique photographs. It seemed, by the middle of the symposium, that anyone referring to the existence of said offending gaze—quite obviously present in the reams of beautiful, complex, and sometimes troubling Walther Collection photographs—would inevitably be labelled as irritating and passé as the hapless, inexperienced student of photography who jumped too quickly to employ that phrase. By the end of the day, the respondents who decried the overuse of the “colonial gaze”—and had asked if we could just “pretend” for a moment it doesn’t exist so that we could somehow move beyond it—were gracious enough to admit the possibility that it was, in fact, present in some of the photographs discussed by a South African presenter. However, it was also proposed (though disputed afterwards) that in other areas of Africa (where colonialism had possibly created less of an impact), this ‘gaze’ did not present a problem to photographers.

I had visited the exhibition in Chelsea before the conference and the photographs in the Walther collection defy attempts to relegate them into easy, narrow readings. It juxtaposes the stereotypical “native” photographs of the early 20th century ethnographer-photographer A.M. Duggan-Cronin against portraits from the same period that black South Africans had commissioned for themselves. The latter was collected by South African photographer, Santu Mofokeng, who is associated more with social documentary photography from the 1980s. (The image above is from the exhibition: on the left is an image collected by Mofokeng; on the right one taken by Duggan-Cronin.)

Clearly, I wouldn’t want my students (or me) to employ a stock phrase in order to box in such complex images and their history. But I remained troubled: what about the resonances of the same obsessions with African albinos and broken down states in current photography—particularly in Pieter Hugo’s and Guy Tillim’s work (associations and resonances brought to our attention by another presenter)? And if a Ghanaian or a Congolese were to go to France, England, Germany, wouldn’t she/he find that conversation with historical imagery and narrative lines—ever present in our conversations and image banks—to be ongoing? Or conversely, if a European were to visit an African country? And: if, indeed, the colonial gaze has gone the way of childhood fantasies, why do we still have popular TV programmes like Discovery Channel’s “Jungle Gold”? The programme, set in Ghana, depicts two American adventurers (two Utah-based real-estate speculators whose businesses recently went bust rock up in Ghana in search of gold) as dutiful family men who embark on this arduous journey to provide for their loving families. Ghana here is just a backdrop: it is Africa as a savage and desperate place, teeming with muddy men with guns and pangas who block the roads, demand constant bribes, and generally threaten the American duo’s lives and plans. Even the use of the word “jungle” presents us with certain obvious associations that I don’t even need to expand on.

Hello, colonial gaze.

The history of photography and art is embroidered with the politics of conquest, desire, and race. In the multivolume book project, The Image of the Black in Western Art, edited by David Blindman and Henry Louis Gates, we get to see how we, as people who bring our current modes of looking, continue to be involved in that historical conversation. From slaves to saints, wise men, aristocrats, and ‘mulattos’ in court, Africa’s encounters with Europe and Europeans did produce aesthetic moments of tender attention to the particular and the individual. But of course, from the initial periods of tentative trade to the Early Modern period which experienced more cosmopolitan rapport with otherness, the more common depictions of Africa positioned it as a place of freakish practices, beasts, and violence-prone peoples who were particularly (and contradictorily) amenable to slavery and servitude. It hardly needs to be said that these ubiquitous images—and the accompanying politics of race and ways of seeing—still inform and re-enters our presence-ing of Africa and African subjectivities.

It’s true that Duggan-Cronin’s work cannot be easily dismissed by a simplistic analysis. Though he set out to frame his subjects as ‘tribals’, he inevitably finds them describing themselves, each other, and their close others in very modern ways. And we can still discover those self-descriptions, leafed in between images depicting exoticism and strangeness: For example, “Plate CXCVIII: Two Young Dandies” shows “Two friends, dressed in their finery,” meeting on their way to a wedding, discussing “possible conquests at the nightly love-making (ukubiza).” And Plate CLXI, “Storing Mealies in a Grain Pit” shows us how the Hlubi regarded the Baca, outside of European gaze; it reminds us that these ways of looking at self and other are no different, say, from the way that French Alsatians may regard German Alsatians:

The Baca store their grain in pits (itisele), bell-shaped chambers dug under the cattle kraal, covered by a flat stone and sealed with dung. The grain tends to ferment and the air in these pits become foetid; often young children, let down into he pit to get grain, are overcome by the fumes and have to be hauled out quickly. Although Baca consider such grain a delicacy, the nearby Hlubi, who store their grain in baskets, comment, “We bury our dead, not our food!”

The Walther Collection Project Space’s three-part exhibition series on photography from Southern Africa presents us with opportunities for negotiating the ways in which we encounter the offense inherently imbedded in that colonial gaze. The first in the series sets Mofokeng’s collection of South African family photographs together with Duggan-Cronn’s colonial photographs of South Africa (published in eleven volumes, between 1928-1954, under the title The Bantu Tribes of South Africa). Mofokeng’s The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890-1950 (published in 1997) is an archive of portraits, each of which were commissioned by black South Africans in the same era in which Duggan-Cronin was busy ‘tribalising’ South Africans using the same medium. By presenting these ‘other’ archival photographs of black South Africans as they saw themselves, Mofokeng seeks to begin a conversation with the colonial gaze, contextualising colonial images, photographs, and postcards. Here, he challenges fixed ideas of the “native types” or “tribals” most often associated with photographic representations of Africans from Duggan-Cronin’s era, ideas which continue on in our own moment in history. The exhibition invites us—the current inheritors of these complex legacies—to seek to transcend, while acknowledging the impossibility of erasing or “pretending” them into non-existence.

Like Mofokeng, and the curators of these collections, I would rather find ways to exuberantly engage with that all knowing gaze and accompanying epistemologies on Africans. In fact, young digital curators and photographers already are messing with those stock images of the native and the African, using Tumblr, Pinterest, and WordPress. That living digital archive may be where we need to head to next: these movable locations offer us platforms where we can actively engage with problematic archives–it is here that we can remark upon, question, and remake self and history.

If you are in the (U.S.) East Coast: The Walther Collection’s opening reception for “Part II: Contemporary Reconfigurations” is on Thursday, November 29, from 6pm-8pm at their Chelsea Gallery. And: Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (the collection will travel to Princeton University Art Museum from Feb. 16-June 9).

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