Producing images is probably the last way in which we can fully express our freedom and individuality in this century. Up until the end of the twentieth century, the West held a monopoly on seeing, i.e. the power of describing and therefore defining the world from a hegemonic point of view. Anthropometric images of the native peoples of the South Sahara, or orientalistic images, in the North, were part of a conscious desire to reduce all humanity down to comfortable clichés which insisted on otherness and exoticism.
In this way, old books by travelling writers and geographers are full of typical portraits and timeless scenes, such as the Noubas of Leni Riefensthal amongst many others. Mastering your own image means presenting the world with voices and colours which escape globalisation and uniformisation. It means refusing to be just the fruit of another person’s way of seeing, and presenting, in silent contradiction, your own version of yourself, according to your own cultural codes and aesthetic. It means getting back your own measure of time.
This reappropriation is collective, but at the same time essentially individual, as you can see from the photographs collected in this issue of PRIVATE. It confirms the senselessness of speaking of African photography as if it were a coherent and homogeneous ensemble. Because the symbolic “us” which is designated by the term “Africa”, is nothing other than a symbol. A metaphor. A lyrical illusion. Homo africanus should not be seen as a monolithic entity, instead, there are Africans in the North, South, Centre, East and West of the continent who should be seen as individuals, with all the complexity and all the contradictions that that entails. Next to exogenous images of ourselves, which are relayed by media and advertising and threaten to surround and close us in archetypes, there are endogenous images waiting to burst out and express what Delacroix calls the “chaotic world of sensations”.
Photography make this ontological discussion possible, perhaps better than any other media does, because it is a media of incarnation. Images cannot exist without an incarnation of some kind. Human bodies become the scene of the story. Intimate bodies, but also social ones, the bodies of other people. This representation, which video and photography make possible, the showing of yourself, allows you to express in a tangible way an emotion which is no longer abstract. Even a landscape becomes a means of self-portrait. And this duality becomes an instrument of provocation.
Mastering this split image is the role which photographers of African origin have assigned themselves, sometimes against their better judgement, in order to avoid misunderstandings or at least bad shots. We are here in the domain of representation, i.e. of the being in the world, where we project onto others how we would like to be seen and negotiate the conditions of our humanity, avoiding the tragic trap which condemned Narcissus. Sartre referred to this splitting into two in this quotation where “Black” means “non-European” or “colonised”: «The herald of the black soul has passed through white schools, in accordance with bronze law which refuses the oppressed man all weapons which he himself cannot steal from his oppressor; it is a shock to white culture that his blackness has passed from immediate existence to a reflective state. But by the same token he has more or less ceased living. By choosing to see what he is, he has split into two, he no longer coincides with himself.»
This splitting into two supposes a mastering of the parameters by which the world is governed. The act of taking photographs is no longer the free and light act which some people have described, but an act which goes beyond the simple individual and transforms the artist into the living illustration of a singularity. Taking photographs means bringing to light the ultimate duality. That of art itself.
(by Simon Njami)