What have “we” done with the image of Africa?

Photo by Zanele Muholi

What have “we” done with the image of Africa?

The very notion of Africa is a complex question and no other geo political space has been so highly contested. The idea of Africa has driven Europeans mad with greed and crazy with the desire to deliver both “benevolence” and “civilization”. Exploiting African resources or saving Africa from Africans has been an international concern for Europe’s enlightened classes throughout time. Denying the sutural relationship that European culture has with African cultures dates back through classical studies. The open theoretical wound, that the seat of civilization is located in Africa is a historical scab on the knees of Europe that keeps getting knocked off and won’t heal. If we then begin to think about African history, culture and politics as a series of ideological concerns then we enter into a most dangerous and contested arena, one that questions the very foundation of European civilization. It’s therefore increasingly clear that the invention of Africa or our understanding of Africa is implicitly linked to, and cannot be separated from the way we have been invited to see Africa, and since 1839 with the invention of photography the medium has played a crucial role in how Africa has been rendered for Western consumption.

The legacy of how Europe constructed the image Africa is still an ongoing academic exercise. The outstanding work we therefore need to do in this field is an analysis of the psychological state of those who framed Africa so negatively. Europe in a perverse self-obsessioned sense may have became deluded, ill or driven insane with what it imaged Africa to be. The result being that the historical encounter between these different cultures, rather than being seen as connected and part of the world’s story has left the European moral economy completely lacking and ethically bankrupt. Division and cultural hierarchy has been the dominant concern for European encounters with African culture.

I therefore prefer to reject the notion of an African photography. What could it possibly signal and what is its purpose. I prefer to examine the conditions of image production within a wider sociopolitical context rather than the prism of western photographic history that is so clearly bent towards the European canon. I prefer to imagine a curatorial exercise for the future that addresses the visual aspects of Africa without the smog of Eurocentric judgment clouding its reception. The liberal European curatorial revisionist African exercise is burdened with its own history and ideological fault-lines, that have been forged by industrial and cultural violence that has over time looked away from the face of the “Other” and engaged a tragic scopic regime that has damned Africa to a meaningless set of contradictions and polarities. Africa is therefore a mirror/theatre in which the violence of Europe has been repetitively played out.

“When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction by our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other” among others. All meaning and every goal having disappeared, it becomes possible to wander through civilizations as if through vestiges and ruins. The whole of mankind becomes a kind of imaginary museum: where shall we go this week-end-visit the Angkor ruins or take a stroll in the Trivoli of Copenhagen?” (1)

When we look at the photographic works of Zanele Muholi, Uche Okpa-Iroha and Saïdou Dicko what we see are not resolutions not great testimonies of truth, we are not being presented with liberal humanitarian photographic clichés. These photographs work because they offer us a mosaic of the world in which we are all connected. The photographers therefore represent an important voice that begins to disinvest the tragic African image bank that is so pervasive throughout European cultures. They collectively open another account for the way the image of Africa be presented.

Mark Sealy
Director of Autograph ABP
May 2010

(Paul Ricoeur History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley. Evanston: Northwestern University press. 1965. p.275)

Mark Sealy is the curator of Bamoko in Toronto, a showcase of the work of three of the hottest photographers from the most recent Rencontres de Bamako – one of the world’s premiere showcases of contemporary African photography.

Bamako in Toronto
Dates: June 3rd- August 2nd (12-5pm Daily)
Location: Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen Street West); 3rd and 4th floor Galleries.
Opening Reception: June 3rd 7pm-9pm; Guest speaker Mark Sealy. RSVP chrissi@volcano.ca
Admission: FREE
Partners: Ryerson Gallery, Autograph ABP and Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town.

~ by volcanotheatre on May 28, 2010.

2 Responses to “What have “we” done with the image of Africa?”

  1. Would like to see this exhibition. For some intersecting thoughts, check out my thoughts on “the new visuals of ‘Africa'” at http://www.david-campbell.org/2010/06/01/new-visuals-africa/

  2. Thanks for the link David. Great essay too. Certainly through the process of creating The Africa Trilogy all of the artists involved have come to agree with your final sentence:

    “If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time, achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.”

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