Picturing Colonial Africa
Alexander Adams reviews Postcards from Africa: Photographs of the Colonial Era, by Christraud M. Geary
Postcards from Africa is the new book by Christraud M. Geary, curator of African and Oceanic art at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. In it she studies production and reception of postcards produced by (and for) European colonists of Africa, roughly 1880-1920. The principal subjects under discussion are African people rather than photographed landscapes, wildlife and cultural artefacts. Examples of postcards are reproduced.
Postcard photographers in the colonies were diverse. “Some makers of these images were commercial photographers and entrepreneurs; others were travellers, ethnographers, owners and employees of trading companies, missionaries, and civilians and military men in colonial service.” A few were African. Frequently, photographers went uncredited. The life stories of some photographers have been reconstructed. Casimir Zagourski was a Ukrainian émigré who fought in the Great War for Russia and (as an exiled monarchist) decided to settle in Leopoldsville, Congo. C. D. Patel was an Indian who relocated to Tanganyika. Others were not resident in the colonies.
Geary describes how it was common practice for photographic plates and equipment to be sold as whole lots to competitors when a studio went out of business. Thus a number of photographs were re-used by different publishers. The printers were European firms, which exported postcards to the colonies. It seems that the main purchasers of postcards were administrators, expatriates and visitors (including tourists). Messages of senders tell us something about attitudes of colonials and visitors towards African subjects. It would be worthwhile to learn what proportion of buyers were indigenous people and how postcards were treated by locals.
The postcard boom played a role in developing global perceptions of Africa. Postcards of types and tribes were produced to demonstrate the usual attributes of physiology, clothing, decoration and weapons or tools. They both contributed to knowledge and solidified outside views of these groups, whether wholly accurate or not. Scenes fell into different categories: those of natives in seemingly undisturbed primal states, natives with colonists, natives at their (foreign-run) workplace, and Europeanised natives in Western clothes posing stiffly in a local studio. Other types included unusual or unique customs, such as the mother with a baby in a sling, women dressing their hair, dances or rituals, locals at their temples or mosques and so on. Natives with elephant tusks are common topics. Not included here are postcards of colonial hunters with trophies. Scenes of the construction of buildings, bridges and railways showed to Europeans the commonalities and differences between European construction and practice in the colonies. Missionary postcards showed how the colonial nation was civilising local peoples. These cards must also have been used as evidence of the work of specific groups, partly in order to encourage more supporters to donate or volunteer for missionary activity.
Prisons and parades demonstrated colonial authority over local people. Geary points out that circulation of postcards of excessively harsh treatment of the Congolese led to international disapproval of the Belgian Crown’s treatment of its Congolese subjects. An 1899 photograph of guillotining of a Senegalese man for murder was produced as a postcard. Geary calls it “a traumatic image of the violence of colonial rule” – a spurious imputation. It was no different to paintings of such events which took place in public in Europe (such as that by Ramon Casas of a public garrotting in Barcelona in 1894) or photographs of hangings in the USA (such as the execution of conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination). This scene has no colonial overtones and is not materially different from depictions of executions found in European and American art of the period. Casas’s painting won prizes, was exhibited internationally and widely reproduced. In comparison, the commercial demand for the postcard of the Senegalese execution is unremarkable. If anything, the postcard showed that the French judicial system did (or aspired to) operate with even-handedness in application of the standards of the mother country to its foreign territories.
The author raises the ethical contestation of reproduction of postcards depicting nude or semi-nude people, especially women. A few examples are included. Such material should be accessible and people should be treated as capable of choosing to view or not. Portraying the ethno-erotic photography of Africans as degrading is true but partial. There were factors which encouraged production of nude photographs in non-European settings – culturally specific attitudes towards nudity, availability of models, the blurring of the line between erotica and ethnography and so on. It was not a uniquely colonial dynamic. Such campaigns of photography took place worldwide, including in Western countries. There was a journal dedicated to cataloguing ethnic typologies of the world – L’Humanité feminine – the existence of which attests to the empirical and materialist Western attempt to document humanity in all its forms.
The area of colonial-era postcards has been the subject for a generation of anthropologists, feminists and those engaged in colonial studies. While Postcards from Africa is informative and evidence based, frequently the author inserts value judgments. It is for readers to decide what they consider acceptable and unacceptable, fair and unfair stereotypes and the value of colonisation. The complexity of relations between colonised and coloniser is too great to allow flippant emphatic statements pro or contra to have any meaning beyond the signalling of an author’s stance. Ex cathedra statements to the effect that outmoded ethnographic terminology was “designed to justify the domination and economic exploitation of peoples under imperial rule” dismisses the genuine (albeit insensitive) engagement of social scientists attempting to understand unfamiliar forms of civilisation. Geary’s attitude displays a lack of empathy with people of past eras, amounting to a form of temporal snobbery.
Geary makes unsupported generalisations. Most demeaning treatment applied to colonial subjects was also meted out to citizens (especially the poor) of colonial powers. Some of the author’s emphatic condemnation tells us little about the colonial experience because it was an experience shared by most peoples during that period. Swap out “African” for “European/American” in statements and they would be just a true. There are valid criticisms to be made of colonialism (in principle and practice); Geary’s fail to meet such criteria. There are no comments here about missionary work in African colonies that does not also apply to missionary work conducted among the underclass of European metropolises at that time; use of anthropometry and phrenology to assess inherent traits was applied to Europeans before non-Europeans; and so forth.
While there is much of interest in Postcards from Africa, the authorial intrusions make for a difficult read. Barely an opportunity is missed to belittle colonisers or express support for Africans in what verges on the idealising “noble savage” view, in its way as patronisingly unrealistic as unthinking denigration. The author is entitled to have her own opinions but it would be judicious to accept others may have contrary views. In an act of poetic symmetry the instinctual prejudices of some colonisers are mirrored by the visceral antithetical responses of academics today.
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