Creating Africa Africa in the Global Contest of Looking and Representation

In the global contest of looking, Africa has not been granted equal status. We stand apart as the Other, stared at, looked down upon, and most times, lacking the vantage point to return the gaze.

In Rosemary Garland-Thompson’s extensive research on staring, she explains it as ‘a conduit to knowledge’, an attempt to familiarize oneself with ‘whatever or whomever embodies the unpredictable, strange, or disordered’. The power embodied in visualization is typified perfectly in the differentiation of bodies into black and white, native and non-native, and the way these distinctions have influenced human evolution from slavery to colonialism to the exoticization of the Orient to modern-day discourses around immigration. The concept of the ‘male gaze’ gained traction in the feminist movement because of a realization of the power inherent in looking, in beholding an object. The story of Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, who was paraded around in freak shows in nineteenth-century Europe to ‘evidence’ the primitive sexuality of the black woman is a constant reminder of the potency of the white gaze. All this inform the conclusion that the act of gazing is rarely neutral, even more so in the presence of power imbalance.

In the global contest of looking, Africa has not been granted equal status. We stand apart as the Other, stared at, looked down upon, and most times, lacking the vantage point to return the gaze. Visuality played a significant role in constructing Africa as the ‘heart of darkness’, a characterization popularized by Western media coverage of Africa. In Imperial Transcultures: From Kongo to Congo, Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that the creation of the imperial nations of the late nineteenth century necessitated the perpetuation of the ‘myth of jungle Africa’. To reinvent the continent, there was an intentional erasure of all previous information, voyages or records garnered from cross-cultural activities and diplomatic relations with Portuguese navigators, traders, kings and missionaries, even the transatlantic slave trade, to institutionalize the binary opposition of the primitive natives and the civilized West. It was essential to present Africa as in a state of tabula rasa, teeming with the barbaric and uncultured, to justify the civilizing mission of colonialism. Images were the principal tool to do this.

Dry-plate photography enabled the innumerable visual representations of Africa that pervaded the West from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Colonial regimes like Belgium’s presented their colonies eagerly to wealthy Europeans as accessible playgrounds ready for them to experience and photograph. Enthusiasts like Herbert Lang became the purveyors of Congo’s identity as the most primitive place in Africa. Gradually, with the spread of these images, the visual evidence of Africa’s backwardness was fomented in the West.

Mangbetu, playing on carved ivory horns. Niangara, Belgian Congo, 1915.
Herbert Lang. American Museum of National History, New York.

These images of ‘exotic’ Africa persist till today in media. Photographs, in the words of Roland Barthes, give us a sense of ‘having been there’. They give us ‘stupefying evidence that this is how it was’, sheltering us from the reality of the photographs’ constructed-ness. Photographs, by virtue of the politics and tastes of the photographer, unavoidably depict aspects of a constructed reality. The staging, so to speak, of Africa took on the illusion of permanence in pictures. Their beholders were kept from investigating their assumptions further. Viewing the pictures, onlookers could formulate their opinions of the continent believing the images to be true, without considering the subjective and biased nature of the photographer’s gaze.

Micheal Silverberg, writing for Quartz, mocks the tired image of the sole acacia tree that regularly graces the covers of books written or set in Africa. The publishing industry falls back on these inaccurate stereotypes framing the continent with a ‘vague, orientalist sense of place’. These images have contributed to the way Africa is homogenously referred to in the West. This homogenization of Africa has been done so thoroughly that many people cannot name individual countries in Africa. Recent research from the University of California found that Wakanda, a fictional nation in the superhero movie Black Panther, was the fourth most referenced African country on television. For the most part, media render Africa a monolithic entity, enforcing the idea of Africa as one vast nation teeming with exotic animals and thick rainforests.

Henry Garuba and Natascha Himmelman’s essay, The Cited and Uncited: Toward an Emancipatory Reading of Africa explores the ways Hollywood has contributed to cementing stereotypes of Africa through their use of what Edward Said has described as ‘citations’. Citations are referenceable tropes and already-known images that are easily reachable. Since they are so widespread, they become authoritative, settled comfortably as common sense, because we are used to seeing them employed in visual narratives. The yellow sunset, the dancing and drumming, the connotations of adventure and safari that have graced our introduction to the continent in uncountable films, a few of which are The Lion King, Coming to America, and Blood Diamond; films that essentialize Africa and perpetually situate the continent in the realm of the exotic. With the prevalence of social media and steady growth of tourism on the continent, the argument that the persistence of these stereotypical images is caused by ignorance has lost merit. The explanation we thus can form is that there exists a knowledge regime, built on centuries of Western knowledge production about Africa, which benefits from these derivative and simplistic representations of Africa.

Western media has much to account for in their negative portrayals of Africa. NGO’s ‘Save the Children’ campaigns displayed on billboards in the West commonly bear stereotypical images of children with distended bellies and their mothers’ deflated breasts. The solution is not to hide the poverty and starvation evident in many African communities; rather, it is to show pictures of human beings with dignity and complexity, like we see in pictures from the American Great Depression or the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In January 2019, the New York Times came under heavy backlash for publishing pictures of dead victims of a terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenyan journalists vehemently criticized the publication for yet another presentation of mangled black bodies for the West’s consumption. While the New York Times stood behind its editorial standards, saying they tried to give a ‘clear picture’ of the situation, their double standards were only too glaring seeing as no pictures of bodies of victims of the many recent cases of mass shootings in the US have been circulated in media.

In 2018, National Geographic released an apology for the racist representations the magazine had borne through the years. Through the harmful images the magazine published, it subjected people of colour to the white gaze, conditioning negative mindsets and strengthening prejudices that were and still are detrimental to those marginalized groups today. While the attempts at examining its history is laudable, it can only go so far to undo the damage that decades of wrong indoctrination have caused.

If, as established earlier, we stare to acculturate ourselves with the unknown, the problem then is not the looking itself, but the way we look. The West, in their portrayals of Africa, is invited to look, but not so much at the strangeness of the beheld but more with the strangeness of continuously witnessing the dignity of striving peoples and cultures that populate a continent they have learned to imagine as unliveable and uncivilized. In Africa, it is high time we reclaim the look, to turn our gaze on the spectator and claim the right of visualization. To do so means we will stare in irony of the West’s portrayal of African nations’ disorganized governments with our knowledge of America’s 40 million citizens who live below the poverty line, of Europe’s descent into populism, and the UK’s floundering in the face of a failing Brexit. We will not stare in pointless mockery, but to reinstate that as the world turns, Africa does not stand alone in misery, and neither does the West alone in grace.

More than this, however, there needs to be more African representation from within Africa from which news outfits, filmmakers and storytellers can draw credible and dignified citations. Nigeria is a good case study for the dynamics of self-representation. The death of three tourists in an ambush on their holiday resort in Kaduna, Nigeria in April 2019 was reported by media outlets within and outside the country. Nigerian news outfits like The Guardian reporting this devastating event emphasized the death of the British aid worker among the victims in their coverage of the story, erasing the two Nigerians who had also lost their lives. This erasure was mirrored in external reports of the deaths in news channels like CNN and Fox News. This devaluation of Nigerian lives is rampant in Nigerian journalism where investigation into terrorist attacks and police brutality on citizens is treated flippantly, when treated at all. This attitude is also evident in the apathy of government officials to the prevalent poverty among the majority of Nigerian citizens, and in a president who declared in front of the whole world that Nigerian youths were lazy and uneducated.

Nollywood and the Nigerian pop culture scene also share some blame for the country’s poor self-representation. Both are populated with a range of artistes who rose to fame off mocking the accents of working-class Nigerians to overly superstitious movies that see poverty as a spiritual attack instead of the result of systemic and economic disenfranchisement. For a country with the highest percentage of poor people in the world, Nigeria evinces in its popular culture and film a strong hatred of the poor. When they are even portrayed, filmmakers, musicians and the likes position their narratives at the extreme ends of either valorising poverty or outrightly demonizing it.

Nollywood exists in a class stratification where its highest funded films feature middle- to upper-class characters whose chief conflicts are settling their parents last wills and testaments, taking over their parents’ business empires, mothers feuding other mothers at their children’s elite secondary schools and other such formulaic themes. These are vital stories which represent a class of Nigerians that is still unexpected in many parts of the world. However, these tropes represent merely a fraction of Nigeria’s population. It becomes concerning when one automatically expects to find these ‘polished’ films in big cinemas, while productions from the ‘lower’ Nollywood strata only sell on street corners and wheelbarrows in pirated and poorly packaged DVDs.

Box Office Nollywood seldom shows the complexities of working and underclass individuals and families in Nigeria. It seldom presents us the citizens George Parker writes about, the plethora of sentient lives who glimpse the vastness of the world’s possibilities ‘through a sheet of glass—satellite TV, the Internet—that keeps them out’. Instead, it preoccupies itself with plots that soothe middle-class sensibilities. When these films dare to venture out of these themes, they often feature stereotypical characters exhibiting ‘ghetto’ traits in a caricature of the underclass people we love to watch on television but hate to encounter in real life, as is the case with The Ghost and the Tout. These tendencies, invariably, lead to the conclusion that we believe the rot in our society should be hidden away if it cannot be tackled. Worse still, they imply that the stories of the less privileged, who constitute the majority of our population, are available for mockery and little else. If we do not consider ourselves as worthy of proper representation, it is futile to expect different from others. As long as we do not produce credible and dignified citations of Africa, the world will keep dipping into the sack of stereotypical images which, with or without our help, replenishes itself adequately.

Dilemma of a New Age II, 2016 © EMEKA OKEREKE
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There are people who are waking up to the importance of dignified representation of African people. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki are two of the latest instalments in this category. The photography of Emeka Okereke, Rahima Gambo and Keyezua, and many others like them also grapple with grief, girlhood, borders, and other urgent issues which demand our attention today. But this will not be enough. Africa needs thoughtful African storytellers who are invested in exploring historical and current events through Africans’ eyes, not just emulating Western narratives in acts of self-deprecation or undue deference. Amateurs and enthusiasts are welcome, so long as they tell of the complexity, the goriness and squalor, the bravery, the great and mundane stories of Africans living every day with dignity.

We need to engage in self-exploration as well, to examine the people we refer to as ‘people’, as individuals, and the remaining mass that becomes lumped together in our imagination as underserving of attention. This is because while we ignore their representation, the world locates them easily enough. As happened when Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York visited Lagos and Abuja, we will see outcries about outsiders telling African stories as ‘poverty porn’. When tragedy and unrest strike, as they so often do, or when the next zealous Hollywood producer decides to make the next The Last King of Scotland, we will pay the piper. The prevalent power imbalance will grant them access to these stories again, stories that will become new citations in the unending process of creating Africa