God, Not Again: White People and an ‘Out of Africa’ Wedding in Kenya*

Oh no. Africa has “touched” someone “deeply” again. This time, it’s Melbourne-based wedding photographer Jonas Peterson, who has reportedly “shot brides and grooms in all sorts of beautiful places around the world,” but none like this infamous lothario of a continental landmass, which “sung to [him] in a way [he] didn’t know possible, found new chords and played on strings [he] didn’t know [he] had inside [him]”. Africa! You sure know how to make white men swoon.

Surely, Peterson knew what he was getting into when he went to photograph the wedding of Nina, “a wildlife photographer and senior marketing advisor to wild cat conservation organization Panthera — and her fiancé Sebastian” in Maasai Mara in Kenya. This is primal Africa central. White people go there, and bam! They get touched and their chords get strummed. Then they usually end up throwing themselves all over “tribal jewellery” given to them by their close and personal Masaai, dancing about some acacias, taking pictures with smiling African children, and the rest is history.

Peterson’s gushing commentary about the sexy power of Africa was was reported in the Huffington Post. It’s a photoshoot of some random wealthy white people’s destination wedding in Maasai Mara where Maasai men are used as props to add interest to photographs. Basically HuffPost is providing free advertising for his photography company (and for Pantera), masquerading as “lifestyle” reportage. Only Twitter and Facebook produced any critique. We’ve said this before, white people. Stop using “Out of Africa” – a film based on a colonial fantasy. The film’s sweeping scenery, and poetic lines rekindle our desire to return to a good ole time, when whites were whites, servants were servants (clearly demarcated by their ridiculous uniforms), and tribesmen were tribesmen (differentiated by their cute, exotic jewellery and costumes). That fantasy still appeals to us because…you know, things were so nice with servants and unlimited power, and swathes of land one could take over whilst one also got to feel like the noble European Madam/Bwana who built a school or clinic and helped the natives get rid of illiteracy and rinderpest or something like that. I’m sure poor Robert Redford and Meryl Streep – and her terrible Danish aristocratic accent – never imagined that when they took on roles as a damaged adventurer and a ruined, lovelorn aristocrat (respectively), racist South Africans would plan weddings with the movie as the theme…only the “wedding theme” is really an excuse to look like tools posing with schlocky “Out of Africa” props, and to also use black/brown people as objects in a colonial fantasy.

But! you say, Wait! This bride, Nina, is not like that! She worked in Maasai Mara. On conservation (bona fide white people credentials for being a good person in Africa). She knew the Maasai so well that one brought her bridal jewellery intended for a Maasai bride. As Nina clearly informed the Huffington Post, “When I first told my closest friend in the Maasai community about our wedding, he came back to me with a necklace and bracelets as a special gift made for me by his family. The stick carried by Sebastian was also a gift from the local Maasai community.”

In case we doubt her exclusive claims on the Maasai, and her extensive Maasai knowledge, she adds, “The bride of the Maasai normally wear a lot of jewelry, and the necklace, called enkarewa, is especially important”. Nice. Good to know that these exotic people are especially exotic because their brides like to wear a lot of jewellery (unlike other brides?).

So I don’t want to waste my photography-analytical skills on these cutesy pics, but ok, fine, there’s a couple that are so hilariously staged that I just have to. There’s the acacia shot: he’s standing there, staring into the expanse of the savanna (existential angst, Denys Finch Hatton-style), and she is on the other side of the acacia, sort of lunging towards him in that white wedding dress and Masaai gear (tasteful, but still, c’mon) … looking forlorn, and all Baroness von Blixen.

Then, the wedding party (all white) poses on a fallen log. Guess who suddenly showed up but two Maasai in full, exotic, Masaai-ish gear?! (Yes, those red blankets came from Scottish missionaries back in the day, and now probably come from Mainland Chinese missionaries nowadays.)

The African as backdrop and prop to white fantasy continues: the couple walk through a double receiving line of Masaai warriors–and for some reason, they are carrying a small, white baby (is it theirs? A friends?).

Then they kiss against an ominous, rainy season storm sky, whilst a Maasai warrior stands around with a spear for no reason. Perhaps his cows ran away because they couldn’t face this charade.

Bride Nina also poses fetchingly, one hand chasing the errant end of her veil, whilst a handsome Maasai warrior stands next to her to offset her whiteness and difference. But, something in this fantasy doesn’t work – he’s intended to be there to be the noble savage, to offset her as “civilised” and “white”, and to accentuate her subjectivity (her passage into adulthood and marriage as a powerful, white woman who is rich enough to stage her wedding pictures here in Maasai Mara, and have the event captured by a photographer from Australia). But – bejeweled as he is in beads and an animal-hide wrap that looks so elegant that no European designer claiming to create “ethical” fashion inspired by African tribespeople could even dream of reproducing, and wearing rubber sandals that have a hint of peach in them – there is no one in this colonial fantasy as beautiful and elegant, and…modern as he. Doubtless, he can teach Nina more conservation skills than all of Panthera.

The one thing that remains a constant, reminding us that no matter where these savvy, marketing-minded, narcissistic people held their wedding, they would still be married to the history that produced this patriarchal and colonial fantasy? The bridesmaids’ dresses look terrible.

* We wanted to show you the images, but apparently Peterson doesn’t like criticism and is threatening to take our site down. The image above is not from the wedding, but a still from the “Out of Africa.” The Huffington Post liked the images, so he has no problem with their reproductions, here.

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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