Temi Odumosu | Art HIstorian and Researcher |
There is a burden of/in images that I want to unfold.
Ways in which looking at the remains of slavery and colonialism make us dependent on, even implicated in, the same pain that brought them into being. The situation is very complex. Enslaved people originally entered visual culture as ciphers, embodying conquest and acquisition within Europe’s performance of imperial power. But in the present day we try to revive the represented into full subjects, to liberate them from the structures in which they have been historically imprisoned. So, we pay more attention: we research, we look, we write, we cry, we critique, we explain.
We reproduce typologies, and the bodies of unnamed people, over and over again, online and in public space. And we do all this without permission from the original subjects. Still, we continuously conjure ghosts, and then try our best to appease the dead, to give them a more honourable place – perhaps in a book or an exhibition – a ‘hospitable memory’, in which to finally rest.i But there are just so many. So many ghosts. We even make new stories, through artistic and cultural practices, in an attempt to temporarily suspend all the damage caused to humanity.ii African humanity. Then (after all this effort) I think what happens is that we surrender. In spite of what we know, and how we feel in this eternal mortuary. The skin of the images feeds us somehow, tempting our eyes with the hope of some answers; perhaps even the mirage of a family member. We become, like the originally intended audience, a visual tourist; looking for lost property. We surrender to the images, in silence.
I do not think we surrender easily. It’s just that the stress and strain, which naturally emerges in response to repeating violence, is unsustainable.iii Over time we have accepted that these images are an important tool for recognition; indisputable evidence of crimes committed, but more importantly signs of Black/African and Indigenous presences that have been previously denied, or forgotten. In this way European images, documenting conditions of enslavement, are re-signified, in order to reconcile with degraded memories and what has gone missing ‘in the wake’ of the slave ship.iv So, we deal with bodies as we find them in artworks and photographs: tense, captured, posed and poised, held under ‘arrest’.v Coded.
I have started to rethink my own role as an art historian engaged in compulsive looking at colonial imagery, where African people (usually enslaved) are the focus of my attention. Informed by this peculiar experience, I often wonder what the future will hold, and how we will continue to live with and write about all these borrowed and stolen images of our ancestors. For example, how will we use colonial photographs in our future museums or documentaries? What role will artworks (paintings, prints, sculptures) have in the development of our future identities? And what will be the consequences of looking at this challenging material, over the next fifty, even one hundred years?vi
Attentiveness to these questions will be critical for our well-being.
The only way I can demonstrate some of the trouble involved in looking at colonial material, is if I describe and then analyse an image carefully. As a researcher I often use the act of description performatively, to help retrace steps, and pinpoint the things that might be missed. As a Black woman, I also describe to trace the lines of fiction (the artifice) in these images; and I do this for all of us who have been ‘standing in a crooked room’ of distorted representations trying to ‘figure out which way is up’.vii Description is for clarity. Analysis is for understanding.
Let us look closely together at a photograph by Georges Leuzinger called Fazenda de Quititi (c.1865), representing a small coffee farm and its occupants, in the hills of Jacarepaguá, Rio de Janeiro. An unsettling, staged image of Brazilian rural life still under the grip of slavery. Most of the photograph is taken up by the geographical setting, with rocky imposing hills in the background that frame a central house surrounded by stairs and pathways. This is not a vibrant landscape being presented here, a ‘settled’ and ‘timeless’ exotic idyll, but rather a place that is ageing and isolated.viii Even in sepia, the trees and land look ragged and overworked, the house has broken windows, and the walls are heavily weathered. Various coffee baskets decorate the ground to the left of the image. In different places clothes and fabric are hanging out to dry. The people in the photograph further accentuate this atmosphere of desolation. In the foreground of the photograph, on a stone patio, several figures are spread out, along the horizon line of the composition, in different poses unique to their role in this community. Two Afro-Brazilian men are raking a pile of coffee beans spread on the ground for drying. One to the left is standing barefoot on the beans, focussed on his work. Another opposite him, to the right, is in the act of shovelling the beans forward but he partially raises his head as if to address the camera, although we cannot see his eyes. Perhaps he is checking he is in the right position? Their long raking tools together create a V-shape that mirrors the valley pictured above them. Between them, in the centre of the whole scene, an Afro-Brazilian woman stands in profile, head lowered, with a child resting in fabric on her back, in the classic African way. She is looking down, blurred but still. Just being. In front of her a group of five children sit on the ground in rags, with hunched shoulders, looking towards the ground and not engaging with one another. There is nothing to do or play with. In contrast, to the right of this scene, a well-dressed European boy of similar age is seated inside a wooden play-horse with wheels. The child knows he is being photographed and poses his body towards the camera. Beside him, his Black nanny stands in an “obedience” pose, with her hands in front of her. Her head is also lowered, and it even looks like her eyes are closed. At the back of this constellation of figures, close to the house, two formally dressed white women stand as accessories to this composition. One standing at the bottom of the stairway to the right is holding the bannister and looking down contemplatively. The second woman on the pathway to the left, is in motion, walking towards the house, but it seems like she has shifted position to be seen in profile. The photograph has captured the movement, which means she appears twice with her ghostly double continuing to leave the scene.
I am in no doubt that Leuzinger staged this composition for viewers in another context, but what did he want to convey about this farm in Quititi? For each body represented here seems to stand alone, even though they are interdependent; these figures, and this space, does not welcome us in, only demonstrate their function. In this sense, why is the “Black mother” featured as a character in the centre of the whole scene? What does she represent? How does she resonate in and beyond the photograph? I think in a literal sense mãe preta embodies the hope of continuity, that she will make the land and the country fertile through her reproductive labour. Mãe preta creates life and cares for it. She nourishes the land, and then she tills it. The fruits of her work are demonstrated by all the children on the floor in front of her. They are presented as the product of intimate encounters with Afro-Brazilian men whose phallic energy is here symbolically represented by the long rakes they work with – currently directed towards their manual labour. The five lonely children are a new labour force waiting to mature, much like well grown coffee. And in this image, they are already “overseen” by the European child on a pretend horse, who in time will likely become their master. He holds the structural power, the legacy of a colonial inheritance, but mãe preta wields reproductive power. Without her and her children the land will become overgrown, and the crops will eventually die.
Even a photograph, claiming to have a documentary function, is not innocent. And developments in the technology of photography in the 1860’s, still required its subjects to stop and pose for proper exposure, which means Leuzinger’s image is not a “snapshot” but rather a composed impression. If we insist on looking at the past through the lens of colonial representatives, then we also have to accept the biases and concepts being institutionalised through images.
If we are to look at the enslaved people represented here, at all, then our gaze cannot be empty of knowing what we are being called to witness. That said, at the very least, there are ways in which we can subvert the representational logic invested in topographical imagery (the overview), which extended the ‘sovereign authority’ of the plantation as a ‘system of visualized surveillance’.ix For example, we can offer gestures (soft gestures) from the present to the past that signal how we recognise presence, spirit, and sentience through veiled images; although our attention needs to be contextualised. This work is a matter of representational ethics, justice, and care. And so, what if we read or listened to Leuzinger’s photograph, by inhabiting the gaze (or bodily positions) of the subjected?
What do these Afro-Brazilian people see and feel? Coffee. Hands. Earth. Feet. Light. Camera lens. Inner landscape. Surely this is the true description for this photograph? Coffee. Hands. Earth. Feet. Light. Camera lens. Inner landscape.
Temi Odumosu is a British-Nigerian art historian, creative educator, and curator at Malmö University in Sweden. She is the author of Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes, White Humour published by Brepols (2017). Her international research and curatorial practice is concerned with the visual and affective politics of slavery and colonialism, Afro-Diaspora aesthetics, decolonial praxis, archival re-enactment(s), critical strategies for digitisation, and more broadly exploring how art mediates social transformation and healing. Recent curative interventions in Scandinavia include What Lies Unspoken: Sounding the colonial archive (National Gallery & Royal Library of Denmark, 2017-2018); Milk & Honey (Botkyrka Konsthall, Sweden, 2017); and Possession: Art, Power & Black Womanhood (New Shelter Plan, Denmark, 2014). Temi Odumosu’s research is currently funded by the Riksbanken Jubileumsfond in the School of Arts and Communication, at Malmö University.
1 Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 64.
2 This sentence was inspired by the essay Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review. 79.3 (2009): 409-427.
3 Franz Fanon spoke evocatively about muscular tension in the bodies of oppressed peoples. See Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963, p.53.
4 For a wonderful theorisation of “wake work” see Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. London: Duke University Press, 2016.
5 See Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2017, pp. 49-60. Writing about a group of ethnographic portraits of South African people from the 1890’s, Campt convincingly theorises and describes their ‘stasis’ as a tension that displays ‘an effortful balancing of compulsion, constraint, and refusal’ (p.57). See also Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October. 39 (Winter, 1986), p. 7. Sekula arues that any photographs designed to identify a “target” like military aerial views or criminal portraits, are ‘designed quite literally to facilitate the arrest of their referent’.
6 Looking is painful and also political. In the context of the Holocaust (which has many well-argued positions on this subject) see Crane, Susan A. “Choosing Not to Look: Representation, Repatriation, and Holocaust Atrocity Photography.” History and Theory. 47.3 (2008): 309–330. Crane critically asks in her argument for not looking: ‘For surviving victims of the Holocaust, the atrocities are not “over” but endure through body memory and psychic trauma; if the pain lingers in them, can the photographs taken against their will ever be viewed except in the way the Nazi gaze enabled?’ (p.321).
7 Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, p. 29.
8 For a discussion of the classic imperial viewpoint see Derrick Price’s section ‘photography within colonialism’ in Wells, Liz. Ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 82–86.
9 Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011, p.10.
10 Campt, 2017, p. 42. Campt writes that ‘listening requires an attunement to sonic frequencies of affect and impact. It is an ensemble of seeing, feeling, being affected, contacted, and moved beyond the distance of sight and observer.’