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Images and Empires Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa

  • by Paul Landau (Editor), Deborah Kaspin (Editor)
  • October 2002
  • First Edition
  • Paperback
    $36.95,  £29.00
  • Title Details

    Rights: Available worldwide
    Pages: 396
    ISBN: 9780520229495
    Trim Size: 6 x 9
    Illustrations: 79 b/w photographs, 1 map

Read the Introduction



An Amazing Distance: Pictures and People in Africa

Paul S. Landau

"Truly here are real savages by our standards; for either they must be thoroughly so, or we must be; there is an amazing distance between their character and ours."1 Michel de Montaigne makes this observation in his essay "Of Cannibals." His point, especially apparent in the word "amazing," is that the derogatory European appraisal of Brazilian indigenes as "savages" is ironic. For while European "civilization" has left behind the valor and moral simplicity of the classical past, the Brazilian "cannibals" have not, and are pure of heart. The argument is made mostly by implication, especially in the consistency with which Montaigne quotes King Pyrrus,, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and other such luminaries in describing the "cannibals": Plato for instance would have seen mankind's Golden Age in them, and the cannibal language resembled Greek. "Of Cannibals" can be read as an early formulation of a theory of what some modern writers call "alterity," the idea that certain kinds of interactions tell people who they are and who most certainly they are not.2

This book is about Africans, not about Brazilians, and in fact, about Africans and visual mimesis. Our authors come from various fields, but each chapter focuses on visual images as they were deployed in their contexts of apprehension. Most of the chapters juxtapose two different kinds of images, in the sense of the editors' suggestion that essays compare "African" iconographies and readings, with "European" ones. More accurately, their discussions can be said to concern "the global and the local." They embrace advertising and folk art; colonist and indigene; photography and funerary sculpture; film and dance; public spectacle and private behavior; and international and street cartooning, among other topics. By focusing on the intersections between such domains, the authors, as a group, make several related arguments , demonstrating that images change depending on who is looking at them and showing how images have both underwritten, and undermined, the hierarchies that governed colonial Africa. Most interesting to me, the chapters in this book all reveal how people use images to draw together previously inchoate social meanings from their own societies, and then how they use them to "recognize" people from other societies. Our contributors are smart enough to know that any kind of dualism is an inadequate model for human interaction. Nonetheless, and this is my point, they all contemplate the same "amazing distance" remarked upon by Montaigne. It seems as if images lend themselves particularly to doing so.

"Image" is a very forgiving word, even a promiscuous one. In a basic sense, an image means a picture, whether the referent is present as an object, or in the mind. At the same time, a picture, in the sense of a sign that resembles—"a picture is of something"—cannot really be in the mind, as a moment's reflection will show.3 Thus, if we begin thinking about the subject matter of this book in a limited sense, with the idea of an "image of Africa," it should be acknowledged that this image really consists of a set of ideas associated with Africa (albeit ones that, perhaps, also embody visual components).4 Here Montaigne's essay is again a good guide. It reminds us that the history of the European view of non-European peoples has always reflected Europeans' history of imagining themselves.

Patently such was the case with Europe's general knowledge of Africa before the nineteenth century. Armchair geographers reached into what was a rather shallow archive of reports, glimpses, and rumors accumulated over past centuries, and the "Africa" they fabricated owed much to Western demands and prejudices. We might call the resulting collage—the "image" of Africa that, in fact, still survives today—an "image-Africa," paralleling Edward Said's discursive "Orient" constructed by European travelers.5 The history of the development of the image-Africa would include The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (75 c.e.), with its cryptic description of tall trading men; the temporary location of Prester John in Nubia or Ethiopia; the visibility of the pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali; the white spaces on the Mappa Mundi, and Guy Tachard's and Peter Kolben's woodcuts of Bushmen posed like Socrates. It would account for dark invocations of witchery and fetishism "from" Africa; the popularity of Leo Africanus's narratives; the ancient mystique of the "Mountains of the Moon," and the idea of the Hamites. It would brace us for a reading of two of the volumes of the massive eighteenth-century Universal History. The image-Africa's permutations might be seen as implicitly charting the rise of sixteenth-century Europe out of Asia's shadow, the colonial encroachments of the Portuguese and the Dutch, and the prospects of swift gain along the Ivory, Slave and Gold coasts.6 Its accretion of images and figments and blanks either followed the contours of the familiar or detoured into obscenity, exoticism, and incomprehension.

At the height of the African slave trade, the image-Africa underwent a change. Joseph Miller has called the transatlantic commerce in human beings the "way of death." Its effect on to the West's picture of Africa was also pernicious, as the degradation of millions of Africans soured the Western imagination of their places of origin.7 The contrary response was to assert the commonality of the slaves' humanity. The freedman Olaudah Equiano went further than this and effectively recapitulated Montaigne's cannibal trope in "Of Cannibals." Equiano grasped that even if Westerners could not see contemporary Africans as their equals, they might still be led to understand Africans as embodying the essence of Europe's ancestors and so he drew an analogy between "the manners and customs of my countryman and those of the Jews before they reached the Land of Promise . . . [in other words,] the Israelites in their primitive state. . . . As to the difference of colour between the Eboan Africans and the modern Jews," he continued, "I shall not presume to account for it."8

Equiano was asking his European readers to project aspects of their imagined past selves into the void of their knowledge about Africa. He knew they could not understand his own Igbo-speaking people on Igbo ("Eboan") terms, because they had no idea what those terms were, and possibly no desire to know.9 But just like Montaigne's "cannibals," the Igbos held within them a critical part of Europe's most authentic self. In the history of the circulation of images in and about Africa, this mode of interpretation consistently recurs: the substitution of what is familiar for what is alien. Westerners' visualizations of Africa did this, and Africans' visualizations of Westerners did it too.

In the fullness of the West's nineteenth-century engagement with Africa, the slave era's harsh views were fragmented. Of the many varieties of observations that jostled against one another, several again reflected Montaigne's ironic reversal. It was maintained that Africans were children; that the present day in Africa was somehow the primitive past of the West; and yet, conversely, that the ancient history of Africa belonged to the biblical past of the West.10 Wild men of the dark forests and magical pygmies were linked with lost Egyptian tribes and forgotten cities. Maybe, some imperialists thought, Africans could attain the same level of civilization as Europeans. Perhaps, however, others felt, they should be discouraged from wanting to. European theorists ranked subsets of humanity from fauna up to Caucasian, informing the evangelical and military engagement of Africans from Isandlhwana to Kumase.11

In all this mixed-up thinking, the images of Africans and Europeans both repelled one another and overlapped. The West's distancing of the image-Africa was met again and again by a sense of slippage toward it, or even a congruence with it. When one of Montaigne's "cannibals" was captured in internecine battle, he typically challenged his mortal enemies to eat him, taunting them that his own body had been nourished by the blood of his captors' ancestors. "These muscles. . . . Savor them well; you will find in them the taste of your own flesh," he would say.12 Just as the absorbed ancestors of the cannibal's opponent were part of the very stuff of the cannibal, Montaigne finds traces of "our" (or at least his) ancestors inside the "savages." He announces "an amazing distance between their character and ours" and locates classical virtues in theirs, not ours. In the same way, Equiano, by asserting the Igbos' similarity to the Hebrews of antiquity, dared Europeans to savor "the taste of your own flesh." For if the past of the West was mixed with the present of Igboland, slavery was also a form of cannibalism. In the chapters to come, while images are shown to behave in all sorts of ways in all sorts of different situations in colonial and postcolonial Africa, this dizzying, self-devouring, "us-them" reversal recurs over and over again.

When Christian travelers encountered slave traders and plantations in Central and West Africa, they reacted in horror and attributed what they saw to an extreme "otherness" of essence, to the irreducibly "barbaric" character of "Arabs" (actually Swahili) or Africans. They did not know or did not credit that the slave trade and the importation of European firearms had destabilized new African polities; nor that the subsequent abolition of the Atlantic slave trade had cheapened slaves in Africa without shutting off their supply.13 Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the providential benefit of slavery in the Americas was no longer argued, Central Africa's garrisoned states and the incorporation of slave carriage into legitimate commerce in West Africa continued to reinforce European prejudices. All the while, Westerners accumulated a library of knowledge about Africa, developed ethnological comparisons, and applied their misprisions of Darwinism to them. As African identities were essentialized in terms drawn from the growing image-Africa of these paper representations, a science of bodies and races emerged and became a sourcebook of biological arguments for African inferiority. The "amazing distance" became a chronological gulf: Africans lived in a past era, which had accidentally been mislaid in the present.14

Such were the ideas and assertions of the learned. In comparison, the late Victorian public's ideas about Africa were probably more nuanced.15 A host of material entered the corpus of the image-Africa as the nineteenth century drew to a close in the form of explorers' accounts, sentimental missionary vignettes, promotions, tales of hunting exploits, and yellow press reports of military campaigns, all aimed at the burgeoning middle class. Some of this reflected the concerns and ideas of Africans in an imprecise way, but not much. Once-popular accounts have today been forgotten: not only explorers and missionaries, but boys'- adventure writers (Rockwood, Henty, Lloyd, and other lesser lights) also "visited" Africa. Those authors who participated in inventing the modern best-seller are still remembered today. David Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Adventures sold 70,000 copies in 1857, and Henry Morton Stanley's In Darkest Africa sold 150,000 in its English 1890 edition alone. Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Selous, and other hunters were widely read, and Rider Haggard's sensational novels, which drew on South African history, had a broad impact. Like Montaigne's Brazil, the image-Africa of Stanley and Haggard was at once part of Europe's glorious past and the antithesis of Europe's refined present.16

During the twentieth century, the "archive" of both visual and textual Africana grew, but the image-Africa became even simpler and flatter in its resonances. Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of the most successful novelists of his century, fixed the image of Africa in the American imagination as a jungle playground for masculine innocence. Laurens van der Post helped distill the modern image of the mystical Bushman as a sort of Jungian self of his white readers.17 Despite the forward march of scholarship on Africa from the 1930s on, the Western public today is by and large left with decontextualized vision-bites of the continent and its peoples. Steamy jungle, arid savannah, Stanley and his bearers, Livingstone in a cauldron, the wise Bushman squinting in the Kalahari sun, bronze bodies, spears, lions, witch doctors and bones, tom-toms and war cries, wild-eyed rites and wildebeest on the plains, all hang in front of Africa like a theatrical scrim. They reproduce themselves over and over again, fade into the dark, the squalid, the starving child and the refugee camp, the irrational war cry, before returning in fresher forums: Saturday morning cartoons, Star Wars movies, and television commercials. The release and subsequent recollection of visual tropes replenish the tableau in an unending spectacular cycle of images already partially familiar to Western viewers.

Unlike the discursive field that "is" other parts of the imperial world—for instance, the Muslim Orient—the image-Africa lives on almost solely in picture form. This notwithstanding an African literary canon stretching back centuries in Sahelian, Sudanic, and coastal East Africa. The African "savage" is the inarticulate twin of overcivilized "man." North Africa, as an adjunct of the Mediterranean world, has been conspicuously excepted from this effect: in the Sahara, Beau Geste makes his way among all-too-human scoundrels, but in "darkest Africa," the society scion Greystoke grows up as a monosyllabic Tarzan of the apes.18 In contrast to the cacophony of the bazaar and the music of the harem, sub-Saharan Africa appears muted and speechless, deriving almost entirely from descriptions of Africa and Africans, and pictures of Africa and Africans.19

Items of visual media were therefore critical to the image-Africa. Colonial-era cinema, stereoscopic slides, tobacco-package inserts, Senegalese postcards, Tintin comic strips, half-tone news photographs, colonial exhibitions, Natural History Magazine, animal trophies, and mounted spears and shields all informed it. The serious investigation of visual signs in the experience of colonialism has only just begun. Christraud Geary has written a pathbreaking study of photographs from the kingdom of Bamun, Cameroon, and Andrew Roberts has directed scholars' attention to photography in Africa as an historical source.20 Annie Coombes has produced an innovative work on the evolution of Victorian and Edwardian modes of seeing Africa in museums and colonial exhibitions.21 Jan Nederveen-Pieterse has written a general overview of images of Africa and African Americans, and James Ryan has published a history of photography in the British empire.22 Pascal Blanchard and the Association Connaissance de l'histoire de l'Afrique contemporaine have archived, exhibited, and commented on colonial images throughout francophone Africa.23 And as Pippa Skotnes discusses in this volume, her important exhibition Miscast visually deconstructed the conditions of the making of the peculiar South African "archive" that has kept Bushmen at "an amazing distance" for so long.24

Of course, even in a banal sense, as Ulf Hannerz writes, "distances, and boundaries, are not what they used to be."25 High-speed travel, television, and the Internet have all trivialized "the distinction between the propagation of images or waves and that of objects or bodies."26 And so Montaigne's "amazing distance" may be shrinking, too. Nowadays it is fashionable to claim alterity and similarity at one and