18 June 2010

Shared Legacies Exhibition: The “Other” on Show?

Catherine Lambley

The Albany Museum is currently hosting a collaborative exhibition titled Shared Legacies at the History Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa. The exhibition showcases photographs from the ethnographic collections of Edward Curtis and Alfred Duggan Cronin - both of whom simultaneously compiled photographic studies of ‘indigenous’ cultural groups in their respective countries during the early part of the 20th century.

While Shared Legacies seeks to find the aesthetic commonalities between both photographers, the exhibition originates from a separate American showing titled Sacred Legacies that dealt with the photographic biography of Edward S. Curtis – an American-based photographer who spent the duration of his life capturing images of the Native American Indian in Northern America and Alaska. His life’s work culminated in the 20 volume series The North American Indian which produced over 40,000 images from 80 tribes. Curators, Siona O’Connell and Dale Washkansky from UCT’s Centre for African Studies in Cape Town create a visual link between Edward Curtis and Alfred Duggan-Cronin – a South African based ethnographic photographer who travelled and photographed the San living in the Langeberg region of the Northern Cape. In a similar vein, Duggan-Cronin embarked on approximately 18 expeditions throughout Southern Africa between 1918 and 1933, photographing the cultures of the “Bantu People” which resulted in an eleven volume ethnographic study titled: The Bantu Tribes of South Africa recording the lives of the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Pobndo, Basuto, Ovambo, Suto-Chuana, Bechuana, Nguni, Swazi, Baca, Hlubi, Vathonga, and Vachopi tribes.

Shared Legacies draws on the analogous relationship between Curtis and Duggan-Cronin, specifically with reference to the visual similarities of the aesthetic treatment of their subject matter, the duality of representation and the shared need of both photographers to capture the essence of an ‘indigenous’ people threatened by the swift encroachment of Moderninity – the focus being on the artistic narrative of portrait photography in a manner which frees the subject from original ethnological frameworks prevalent at the time. As O’Connell states:

“By revisiting these images against the historic canon we endeavour to recognise the 'truths' and 'untruths' of their construction. Both of these collections were effective in fashioning the image of the 'noble savage'. Shared Legacies retrieves these images from the 'primitive beyond' in order to reconsider the roles of the photographer, the sitter and the viewer. As such we uphold a performative, re-imagined theorisation of the photographic image, one where the spectator is an active participant in this tripartite relationship. It is precisely due to the specifity of the referent and the solidification of a fragment of time that a kernel is planted in order to destabilize the meta-narratives of the past.”

But can these ethnographic images from the past, qualify as art today? And is this the intention of the exhibition? Perhaps the most telling quality of Shared Legacies is the manner in which it has been curated. Collotypes originally bound in books have been removed, re-sized and reproduced on canvas banners showcasing images of men and women from ‘indigenous’ groups of Africa and North America, staring downwards at the viewer. Additional portraits of Zulu chiefs have been inversed and re-located alongside’ Native’ American Chiefs, fixed to transparent Perspex and hung from the ceiling in an attempt to renegotiate notions of cultural representation from the past – a creative banding of brothers, united as an objet d’art memory-piece. Selected quotes from Franz Fanon, Roland Barthes and Homi K Bhabha lie covered on mirrors – paying tribute to the important role played by Post Colonial Theory in understanding the effects of colonialism on the colonized. And an installation of framed photographs - some of which have been turned to the wall - their backs representative of mourning rites often associated with Jewish custom relating to death – one would assume as a show of respect for the dead. But not everyone gets it. Most of the visitors were left feeling unclear as to what the exhibition message was.

In this instance, Shared Legacies signifies a shift from a more traditional object-based exhibition to a metaphoric one – which includes the use of visual aids used in Reflexive Museum Practice as an attempt to guide or ‘action’ the viewer into a series of experiences which may or may not sit well with the visitor towards the end of the show. However, one needs to asses to what degree the visual metaphors have been clearly articulated and if they signify a new trend in curatorship and museum practice that favours the curator as author - the person who creates artistic discourse by exhibition; and if one can, in this case, fashion ethnographic images of the ‘Other’ into Westernised notions of artistic aesthetics, given the parallel to Colonial-based relationships fashioned at the turn of the century. This undoubtedly also raises issues concerning the role of museums as public entities with a social responsibility to community thought, development and equality. Museums in general state how their collections are acquired and where they come from in order to contextualise exhibits to the public in a manner which celebrates ethnic diversity through Transformation Policy on the one hand, while remaining truthful to the historic environment of the collection, on the other. Following the global spread of Postmodernism and Post Colonial discourse, museums have had to increasingly restructure and reinterpret the cultural and racial convolutions of Colonialism - and in a country like South Africa, who was colonized by not one but two Colonial Powers it becomes a matter of necessity given the legacy of Apartheid and its history of violent racial discrimination. Thus, when dealing with collections from the Colonial era, museum’s are sensitized to the idea that things from the past have to be understood within the context of what we have learnt about them today, especially in light of the fact that traditionally, museums have played a guilty hand at ‘imperialistic collecting’ under the discipline of Anthropology, as its pioneering means (Kravagna 2008: 2). Concurrently, Anthropology has had to develop a more critical and reflexive approach to the manner in which it examines culture and collections of material culture both from the past and present, given its historic relationship with Colonialism, Traditionalism and Modernization. Anthropology has had to become critically aware and sensitised to the hierarchies it constructs and negotiates when considering human difference.

Ironically, objects from the Colonial era comprise a sizeable portion of museum collections – all of which characterise the sentiments of Imperial Expansion, Cultural Evolution and Scientific Racism, pertinent at that time. Objects pillaged from the colonized by fieldworkers, missionaries, travellers and colonial administrators were returned to museums established to showcase scientific specimens as a part of Eurocentric proof that the “primitive”,” native” and “savage” in comparison to colonial supremacy was indeed, unequal, inferior and subordinate. As part of these collections, photography played an important role in sustaining and distributing notions of Scientific Racism in an attempt to capture the ‘exotic’ and ‘erotic’ ‘savage’ ‘Other’, as part of a power dialogue between the Colonizer and the Colonized. Ownership of the camera, by the photographer became equated to ownership of the subject visually and politically.

Ethnographic photographs are shaped by a historical context that cannot necessarily be re-contextualised in order to change their meaning, particularly when considering that Anthropology, as a system of collection, had preoccupied itself with portraying visions of ‘other’ worlds, while operating from a dominant worldview. The Albany Museum, to date, has seven bound copies of the eleven volume series of Duggan-Cronin’s images, located in The Bantu Tribes of South Africa – a Colonial collection of ethnographic studies with introductory articles on the ‘tribe’ of choice, written by several authors, mostly ethnologists from the Native Affairs Department of the Union of South Africa. The plates from volume to volume weave a common thread showcasing landscapes, objects of ‘traditional’ African culture, people and portraiture, most of which was photographed intentionally. Subjects were placed alongside objects that were located near a dwelling and photographed to enhance the overall context of what was trying to be captured and constructed. As way of example, Plate VI in Volume II of The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, The Suto-Chuana Tribes, Volume 11, section 1, reads the following: Kgatla Backyard at Mochudi – “This plate shows the servant’s quarters, with out-of-doors pantry, granary, and in the foreground tobacco plants. The tobacco is usually used for snuff making, but some of it will also be smoked. The woman is carrying the typical cone-shaped Chuana grain basket (tlatla) on her head. In the pantry in addition to beer pots there are a few small covered grain bins for daily use.” The focus of the photograph is a young woman dressed in traditional attire who is standing next to a hut. She carries a basket on her head. The text contextualises her in terms of the tobacco plants, situated, rather in the foreground of the image; as well as to mention the basket situated on top of her head. Besides this, no other reference is made about her. Though purposefully placed in the photograph, she is, as it would appear, the functional element bound from which the viewer is able to evaluate the objects around her. She is, as part of the landscape, obligated to stand as an object located within it, as an attempt to verify notions of ‘Other” with ‘Nature’ and ‘Object’.

Another point worth mention is the intention of Duggan-Cronin’s photographs. Though they were not anthropometric in nature, his portraits were staged and his subjects were made to sit on fold-out chairs behind a draped cloth background, in unusual poses, which creates an uncomfortable tension between the viewer and the person being viewed. Examples of this can be seen in The Bantu Tribes of South Africa: The Bavenda, Volume 1, Section 1, plate VI: A Venda Mother and Child at Sibasa where a young mother sits topless with her child on her lap. The caption reads: “Sibasa is one of the largest villages of the Bavenda, and the centre of the Venda country. The woman’s facial features are typical of the ‘aristocratic’ section. The pendant at her neck probably contains “medicine” for the baby, for use in time of need”. Following this, several other photographs of this nature are taken within the series where individuals are made to sit behind the same drapery while the camera - arranged at an unchanged angle - gives one the impression that the individuals/subjects concerned had to stand in a row patiently waiting their turn to be photographed. Plate XI in this edition and the last portrait in the series shows Venda Young Woman – a photograph of a young woman positioned unclothed in front of the camera. The caption states: This is a mixed type intermediate between the ‘aristocratic’ and the ‘common; the author classifying the young girl according to her facial features in terms of tribe and class. It is not merely the image alone that fashions the context of a photograph. And in this regard, nor is it merely the text. A photograph is governed by the reason why it was produced in the first instance – within a social environment which, like a blue print, can never be removed. In this circumstance, it is worth mentioning Terence Ranger, who states: “ (The camera) created 'landscapes'; it constructed the idea of 'wildlife'; it produced stereotypical illustrations of 'tribe' and 'race'; it identified criminals in 'mug shots'; it gratified colonial desire with soft pornographic postcards of naked African women. Given its multiple powers, it was no wonder that the myth spread among some African peoples that the camera stole one's soul” (2000: 169).

American Photographer, Richard Avedon once said, “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph”, sentiments echoed by some museum curators who have come to realise the so-called importance of ethnographic data collected during the early part of the twentieth century - particularly since it shows the cultural relationship between the Colonizer and the Colonized. It was, after all, the first point of contact. As Nordstrom states, “It is common to find images of subjects wearing inappropriate costumes, or associated with objects from times and places they do not inhabit. These "untrue" images can be revelatory of the "truth" of the dominant culture's stereotypes and are today seen as an increasingly significant area of historical inquiry” (1991). Ethnographic photographs have come to inhabit a new context within museum displays, more so as stand-alone graphic elements without labels, data and relevant information pertaining to the original context and purpose of the image; that shifts the image once part of an ethnological collection to a work of art. As in the case of Shared Legacies photographs have been removed from their original book format to accommodate massive size banners - hung from museum walls in an interdisciplinary approach that amalgamates art history and anthropology, with the hope that this may re-contextualise them from their original intention and use. As Nordstrom reiterates: “The voices of representatives of the depicted cultures in the interpretation and presentation of these pictures offer a similarly fresh and important perspective. The most inclusionary reading of these images is the most useful one; it affirms that there are many histories inherent in these fragments of our colonial past, present and future” (1991).

In this context, both Curtis and Duggan-Cronin have been hailed as ‘Romantic’ photographers – their aim being to capture the essence and traditional fashion of their subject matter before the encroachment of twentieth century Moderninity, often staging photographic scenes by removing ‘modernised’ objects from them. It is not surprising then, that the bulk of the images selected for Shared Legacies draw on the aesthetic rather than ethnographic nature of their subject matter as an attempt to idiosyncratically elevate the individuals concerned. In this sense, is it the purpose of Shared Legacies to criticize Colonialism and former methods of ethnographic collecting by ‘freeing’ the subjects to the canon of ‘high’ art - which has its own historic issues relating to The Gaze? Or does this not form part of a continuation of ‘Othering’ across academic fields? Perhaps it is the intention of the exhibition to raise these questions.

But to whom? The bulk of our guests visiting the museum are learners participating in our schools program – which includes the Shared Legacies exhibition - most of whom will be travelling from the local township area. This then makes it essential to answer some of the issues raised, especially in light of how these images are read in the context of what we know about Colonialism today. As Nordstrom qualifies:

The placement of the viewer, without comment, in a position analogous to that of the privileged, voyeuristic, and aloof image-maker is hard not to read as a romantic staging of the colonisers' comfortable life rather than as a critique of it. We must consider the possibility that the exhibition of such stereotyped historical images reinforces the same stereotypes in current thought, or encourages a smugly uncritical "That was then and this is now" attitude that exacerbates the denial of present-day racism (1991).

One of the topics that the Education Department tackled earlier this year with Grade 11 and Grade 12 students from Mary Waters High was The Question of Identity: Self and Culture – a two day art workshop dealing with portrait drawing. We hope to continue our work with the same set of learners extending it to include the Shared Legacies program – which will incorporate experiments with portraiture in terms of identity and representation. We hope to raise some of the issues discussed in a manner which can bring about critical reflection in terms of who represents the self and cultural identity and to what extent this still occurs within our society today.

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