Images and Empires: Visuality
in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa.
Paul Landau and Deborah Kaspin, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 380 pp.
teaching about African history and society have long wrestled with the
stereotypical images of Africa engrained in the heads of their students. This
collection of essays, originally presented at a conference at Yale in 1997,
offer a number of creative ways to analyze and read images constructed by
Africans and Europeans about one another. Gravesites, comic books,
anti-colonial cartoons, photography, and wily ethnographic performers are
among the subjects covered. This well-written book manages to evade many of
the pitfalls of conference compilations and contains information that would
be quite useful for those teaching graduate and upper-level undergraduates.
introduction by Paul Landau is a thoughtful and often daring overview of
images in and of Africa. He rightfully notes the chaotic evolution of the
series of images of Africa developed by a wide range of travelers, writers,
advertisers, and governments based in Europe. Photographs of “native types” allowed governments and foreigners to
construct and classify labels, ethnic or otherwise, on Africans while
eliminating the individual context of photographic subjects themselves.
Thankfully he goes much further by noting how indigenous artists and
audiences created their own visual commentary on the colonial experience and
appropriated imported pictures and genres for their own ends. One of the most
fruitful areas Landau opens up is the complicated ways representations were
made, read, and altered in a colonial context. The author notes, “Every unit
of meaning, and not just every image, is a public crossroads of histories of
interpretation” (16). The rest of the essays pursue the idea of images as a
meeting point where widely different and even contradictory social meanings
might be placed into visual representations crafted by or of Africans.
a collection as rich as this one, it is hard to choose certain contributions
to highlight. Robert Gordon’s essay on Bushmen and
film is a fascinating examination of how Africans might manipulate their role
of providing stereotypical images of “authentic” Africa for European mass consumption. Governments exaggerated the possible
ramifications of film-viewing on African audiences. Some Bushmen themselves,
faced with an increasingly harsh set of impositions from the South African
government, gleaned both merchandise and cultural influences from the long
train of visiting filmmakers while self-consciously performing the “wild” and
“primitive” representations that documentary makers wished to capture even
though these practices had increasingly vanished in their everyday lives.
Tourist culture, far from keeping Bushmen forever pinned in a timeless
ethnographic present that only existed in the minds of Europeans, allowed
them to comment and gain influence on their contemporary marginal position.
Ben-Amos Girshick offers a look at a group of
nineteenth-century artists in the pre-colonial state of Benin (Nigeria) that overturned many of conventions of art to
comment on local political and social tensions. Omada,
young male servants to the king, produced works that parodied royal art and
criticized the ominous shadow of increasing British power in the region. Omada were placed in a position where they were
marginal figures as individuals yet intimately close to the center of power.
They could act as ‘gatekeepers’ who could open or close access to the king to
individuals far more respectable than the omada
themselves. Kings in omada art might appear
as secondary rather than dominant figures, and Europeans often appear as
drunk and oafish buffoons in ways that highlight local views about their
unattractiveness. This piece is a valuable antidote to readers who might
expect unchanging and monolithic traditions in royal art.
Gable compares a Portuguese official’s obsessive
documentation of female scarification among Manjaco
people in Guinea-Bissau with Manjaco statues of
Europeans. African chiefs decided to innovate an old
tradition of abstractly-formed statutes with a much more realist set of
statues of Portuguese administrators and traders. Both trends articulate
cultural concerns during the 1940s and 1950s when state power expanded in the
region. Administrators sought out a supposedly vanishing authentic Manjaco culture by photographing women whilst damning men
in European dress as “bad copies” just as they tried to prop up chiefs as “traditional”
leaders. At the same time, chiefs and their families sought out individual
artists known for carving posts in honor of a man’s
ascent to adult responsibilities. Young men needed to master colonial
technologies of power and influence, Gable contends,
that were embodied in the statues. The construction of tradition thus
influenced indigenous and foreign visual representations in the region.
pieces in this collection deserve far more attention than space available in
this review. Hudita Nura
Mustafa explores relationships Dakar people make between the trapping of modernity and
global circulation with individual selfhood and group identity through
photographs. Nancy Rose Hunt takes a characteristically cultural turn with
her genealogy of Congolese comic strips and images of the Belgian icon of Tintin. Mission-educated Africans, settlers, Catholic
priests, and others produced comic art that could reveal rivalries between
ethnic identities, brute caricatures of Africans, or more recent pieces that
parody teachers and officials.
in all, every selection here provokes thought and deserves a reading – a
rarity for this sort of publication. The authors and editors are to be
commended for the book’s excellent design and its
Cabrini College, Radnor, PA