Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia, reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines, German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features. Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.
The spectator is confused. These aesthetical, disturbing photographs make him feel so ill at ease that he is tempted to look away, confronted with the repressed reality revealed by the artist who makes him question the body in society, the body as an “ object of socialization”
Ed: Struck by the remarkable colors and tones used to tell the story of these two social/cultural groups.
Another Africa and K.L.V. have collaborated on a series of diptychs that compare an intensely rich source of inspiration born in Africa with the realms of the worldwide arts and fashion. On view, the ingenuity of African masqueraders, gleaning mother nature’s closet to create visually arresting disguises. Juxtaposed with contemporary art and fashion images, the pairings highlight the qualities that connect, complement and contrast, but ultimately celebrate creative ingenuity.
Within the rather Spartan confines of the Walther Collection Project Space are to be found three worlds: Weimar-era Germany, photographed by August Sanders in his life-long project to record the ‘Face of Time’, late-colonial Mali, where Seydou Keïta operated a portable portrait studio in Bamako, and, of course, 21st century New York.
Ed: Pairing of bodies of work that are on the surface unrelated.
Per the South African Journal of Photography Ernest Cole, South Africa’s first black photojournalist was born as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole. He started out his photography career as a studio assistant to a Chinese photographer; it took off when he asked Jurgen Schadeberg for a job at Drum magazine. It was while taking a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography that the staff there encouraged/helped him to start taking pictures of life under apartheid in South Africa. By tricking the government to reclassify him as a colored (enabled by the name change to “Cole”) he was able to get access to places other blacks would not have had. As a colored he was also able to sneak his images out of South Africa, that were made into the book “House of Bondage”. He never returned to South Africa, dying in exile and isolation in New York in 1990 a week after Nelson Mandela’s release.
David Campbell: The New Visual Stories of Africa starts with the “single story” theme that Chimamanda Adichie struck in her seminal TED talk and takes image makers to task on their dualistic portrayal of Africans as good or bad, primitive or modern. This viewpoint evidently has not progressed much from that espoused in the early days of colonization where it was important for image makers to show Africans as inferior to Westerners so as to justify colonial/missionary forays into the continent.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Greg Constantine: Slum Warriors: Kenya’s Nubians. Kibera’s 100,000 strong Nubian community has lived there for over 100 years on land give them as compensation for fighting in the Kings African Rifles. “Nubian” is not officially recognized as a Kenyan tribe, so unless they are “vetted” at age of 18 to get Kenyan ID cards they become essentially stateless.
PHOTOGRAPHY:: Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Visions. Studio Museum in (the sweet village of) Harlem brings together a number of Mthethwa’s large scale images. Go see.
Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Views brings together three series by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1960). “Interiors” and “Empty Beds” document the domestic lives of migrant workers around Johannesburg, South Africa, while “Common Ground” focuses on the shared experience of natural disasters in urban areas, featuring houses in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, after wildfires.
See Also: Talk between Mthethwa and Okuwi Enwezor last year at Aperture gallery at the launch of Mthethwa’s monograph.
Screenshot of NPR website feature on Egyptian diva Um Kulthumm
A while ago, NPR did a feature on Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum as part of a series of the 50 greatest voices of all time. I sat up when I heard the orchestrastration behind her voice that sounded familiar. I sat all the way up when correspondent Neda Ulaby, in reminiscing about her Syrian father’s love for Kulthum’s music, used the word tarab which, translated into Arabic means ecstasty (the emotion, not the drug). And you could hear that ecstasy as the mostly male voices on the live recordings of her songs shouted their approval when Kulthum would hit a particularly high emotional note.
In East Africa, taarab refers to a specific form of sung poetry. Per an excellent interview with anthropology professor Kelly Askew the roots of the music are in Zanzibar, where 19th century Omani sultan Barghash brought Egyptian musicians to perform court music like he had seen in travels in India and elsewhere. Classical (Zanzibari) taraab is epitomized by groups such as Ikhwani Safaa or the Culture Music Club; their sound influenced by mid-20th century Egyptian pop music as well as the firqah orchestras of Egyptian film.
Askew also posits an alternate theory that taarab grew organically from the interaction of African/Arab/Indian sailors who plied the Indian Ocean. The music evolved as a synthesis of the cultures of these places and the people who came into contact with each other. The various flavors of taarab seem to bear this theory out. In towns like Dar es Salaam and Tanga in Tanzania, it is more vocal-oriented and flavored with the ngoma (rhythms) of ethnic groups like the Chagga, Nyamwezi, Sukuma. Over time is has also incorporated dansi or urban/western sounds like the foxtrot, cha cha and Cuban as well as Congolese rumba. Mombasa taarab is more influenced by Indian Bollywod film music and incorporates classical Arab musical structures. Mombasa bands are also much smaller and the ngoma are inspired by Giriama and Digo rhythms.
While taarab themes mostly concern themselves with matters of the heart, in Nyerere’s Tanzania it provided culturally neutral ground (together with Kiswahili) that helped Tanzanians stitch a national identity beyond tribe, something that other (East) African countries would do well to emulate.
SEE ALSO: Taarab legend Bi Kidude performs with the Culture Music Club of Zanzibar.
Refugee: In above puff piece, former refugee Iman makes a great point about what women displaced by the Congo conflict need. No, not charity but help to end the war (as funded by conflict minerals from that region), so that they can re-build their communities. Not sure if the whole fair-trade cellphones concept will take off, though.
In the 1970s and 1980s, so many promises were made to Liberia and by Liberians. All of them would be broken over the next two decades. As part of a long term project I’m beginning, I plan to document the spaces of these broken promises.
See also: Guy Tillim: Jo’burg Landmark image series from 2005. From Tillim’s artist statement:
The decay of Jo’burg’s centre can be ascribed to many factors but perhaps none more so than the absence of Body Corporates. These had become relics of a more genteel era; the communal responsibilities that are contentious in even the most well-heeled blocks were not marked out. Windows were broken and not repaired. Lifts froze and their shafts became tips.
The relationship between tenants and owners or their agents deteriorated with disputes over the state of the buildings, and in some cases resulted in unpaid rents and dues. The buildings started looking like fire hazards, and the City Council began closing on them for unpaid utilities.
See also: Zarina Bhimji: Out of Blue: Zarina Bhimji (Uganda/UK) was a member of the Asian community kicked out of UG in the 70’s; she returned there a few years ago and among other things documented (film/photos) the decay in the public and private buildings that had been abandoned by fleeing Asians during the nightmare that was the Idi Amin years. Some of her images were featured in the landmark International Center of Photography photo exhibition “Snap Judgments“.
Image of Peter Beard on the shores of Lake Turkana, 1965. From Guardian web site.
Controversial diarist, artist, photographer, writer, conservation activitist Peter Beard links my two worlds in New York City and Kenya. I always thought he was a Kenyan, a Kenya Cowboy to be sure but Kenyan none the less. Growing up, I remember his photography and the publicity it generated around wildlife conservation. The picture of him on the shores of Lake Rudolph (Lake Turkana to the kids) with half of his body in the mouth of a crocodile has always been part of my visual landscape.
In truth Peter Beard was born in these United States. He first developed an interest in Africa through visits to the Museum of Natural History in NYC. After graduating from Yale, he moved to Kenya working on game conservation, as documented in his book “The End of the Game“. The book featured the carcasses of mostly elephants that were dying in Tsavo from a combination of drought and overpopulation brought on by population pressures. Here in the US, Beard hung out with the art/social elite of NYC. Beard’s US base in Montauk (far east Long Island) was the place folks like Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Richard Avedon, and Jackie Kennedy spent time. He also counted luminaries like Mick and Bianca Jagger, as well as Francis Bacon among his circle of friends.
Excerpts from “Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond”
Beard’s mixed media diaries and installations make use of a lot of the ephemera of Kenya’s past and present. From coins, to images of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, from old photos of colonial Kenya to current images of the land, people and animals of Kenya, there is so much that that is part of my visual and cultural landscape. That his work was inspired by artists like Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon, and his fashion images were featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair, places him squarely in the art scene in the New York of the 60s and 70s.
What one cannot deny about the work of Beard is that he appreciates the raw beauty of Kenya and incorporates it in his art. He can see the beauty of a Turkana woman untouched by modernity and say that it is the same beauty as that of a Vogue model. That bold viewpoint, informed by his life-long love of nature and natural history, challenges the connotation of Africa as that “dark” and primitive place and links the notion of beauty in Westernized, modernized, removed-from-nature New York with that of Africa (and all nature in general).
Beard, after all, is the man who introduced the world to one Iman Abdulmajid, claiming he had discovered her while she was herding camels in the Northern Frontier District (North Eastern Province to the kids). Iman’s arrival on the beauty scene of the early 1970’s completely and irrevocably upended the notion of African beauty in the world of fashion, which is pretty revolutionary come to think of it.
Paradoxically, apart from the Maasai and Turkana who live in the wild (in nature), the rest of us modern Africans are “doomed” for our wanton reproduction and desire for progress. In the debate over the battle of man vs nature in the competition for resources, Beard falls firmly on the side of nature. This quote from the film “Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond” in the mid-90s seems to imply that diseases like AIDS are nature’s retribution for our profligacy:
“Coming to Kenya is coming to unspoiled, and unscrewed up by human beings (at least in the 50’s), … a frontier that extends right back in time to the Stone Age. Human beings are not going to stop, they don’t know when to stop. The only thing that can stop them are these diseases that everyone is spending all their money to fight. We are sucking the juices out of the earth to fight the diseases that nature wants us to have because we are too greedy and we have taken over too much.”
This is a position that is hard to abide considering that as post-colonial Africans we are free to screw up our environment (or not), without the moralizing of people whose ancestors destroyed their environment and big chunks of other peoples’ to boot. It is the romantic, outmoded “Out of Africa”-era fetishistic attraction to Africa the primordial and the repulsion at Africa the modern with its complex, intractable problems that makes it hard to have unalloyed admiration for Peter Beard’s art, as much as he has contributed ecologically, culturally and visually. However, I suspect that is the essence of the man, who while decrying the superficial nature of modernity, has no problem doing fashion shoots for magazines that embrace that same superficiality. The world is full of contradictions.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Critique: WHITE PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT YOU BY SEBASTIEN BONCY. Speaking of Amy Stein she recently posted some images from South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s series on Nollywood. The post led to a response by Sebastien Boncy (who happens to Haitian). Among other things he contends that the way Hugo portrays his subjects is no different from a long history of colonial photography (and current documentary/war photography), whose aim was to make brown skinned subjects “the other”, somehow not human in the same way as Westerners.
MAYBE IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WAY HUGO AND HIS DEFENDERS ARE SO QUICK TO DISMISS OR MINIMIZE CONCERNS ABOUT THE RACIAL CONTEXT THAT THIS WORK TRAVELS IN. HUGO HIMSELF DENIES ANY CLAIMS OF OTHERING BLACK AFRICANS AND TURNS THE TABLE ON HIS ACCUSERS BY CALLING THEM “CONDESCENDING” “WHITE LIBERALS” THAT DENY HIS SUBJECTS ANY REAL AGENCY IN THE FABRICATION OF THESE IMAGES, BUT WE KNOW THAT PERMISSION DURING PROCESS DOES NOT MEAN CONTROL OR EVEN APPROVAL OVER THE FINAL PRODUCT. LARRY CLARK AND DIANE ARBUS HAD PERMISSION, YET THE ETHICS OF THEIR WORK IS ALWAYS FRONT AND CENTER OF ANY SERIOUS DISCUSSION ABOUT THEIR LEGACY. IT IS NOT JUST ABOUT WHAT GOES INTO THE WORK, IT IS ALSO IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER WHERE IT’S HEADED, WHERE IT COMES FROM AND WHO’S DOING THE BUYING.
HUGO IS WORLDWIDE. HE HAS A GALLERY IN SOUTH AFRICA, ONE IN THE USA, ONE IN ITALY, AND ONE IN THE NETHERLANDS. NONE OF THOSE COUNTRIES ARE KNOWN FOR THEIR HAPPY, WELL-INTEGRATED BLACK POPULATIONS. THE PEOPLE SIPPING WINE AND SPENDING MONEY AT MOST HUGO OPENINGS ARE HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO HAVE ANY SIGNIFICANT KNOWLEDGE OF NIGERIA OR EVEN FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE OF BEING PART OF THE BLACK-BEANS-FOR-DINNER-THREE-NIGHTS-IN-A-ROW CLUB. AND THESE PICTURES DO NOT OFFER ANY SORT OF EDUCATION FOR ONE UNFAMILIAR WITH NIGERIA. NOW IN A NIGERIAN GALLERY OR MAGAZINE THESE WOULD BE VERY DIFFERENT IMAGES: THE AUDIENCE WOULD BE ABLE TO DECIPHER AND DISCUSS THE REFERENCES, THE MEANINGS OF THE FICTIONS AND ICONS THAT ARE SPECIFIC TO NIGERIAN LIVES, NIGERIAN ECONOMIES, NIGERIAN HISTORIES, NIGERIAN RELIGIONS. WHAT IS AN ITALIAN ARISTOCRAT THINKING WHEN CONFRONTED WITH A MOOLIGNON VADER WITH HIS DICK OUT? I THINK IT IS BEAUTIFUL THAT HUGO TRUSTS THE AUDIENCE TO COME UP WITH COMPLEX AND INSIGHTFUL CONCLUSIONS, BUT I ALSO THINK IT IS NAIVE IF HE THINKS HE CAN JUST TOSS THESE PHOTOGRAPHS AT SOCIETIES THAT CONTINUE TO OPPRESS THEIR BLACK POPULATIONS AND NOT EXPECT NEGATIVE READINGS OF RACE TO STICK TO OR BE AMPLIFIED BY THE WORK.
But tonite mi just wah dagga
I’m a straight forward kind of bredda
Mi know mi seh wi coulda just chill tonight
But when mi see your body
Girl mi cyah badda
Mi just wah dagga
And leff all a di talking fi tomorrow
Tonite I wanna make you my baby madda (wooooh)
Tonite mi just wah dagga
Censorship: Busy Signal – Beep (Indiscretions Riddim)
just through di beep(beep)
I and I cyaan speak
warn to freedom of speech
just through di beep(beep)
we nah express weself inna di song
and now di beep fulfill it
just through di beep(beep)
I and I cyaan talk
cyaan tell mi fans everything inna mi thoughts
dem only waan mi music play pon sidewalk
certain things dem nah bright cause