Objects
Niklas Wolf

Image 1: Eliot Elisofon: The Sculpture of Africa, New York 1978 (Hacker Art Books), p. 80/81; image 2: James Johnson Sweeney, Paul Radin (eds.): African Folktales and Sculpture, New York 1964 (Pantheon Books), plate 42/43
MoMA, New York City, USA

Representing African Art?

 

Looking at the perception, representation and appropriation of non-western objects and their practices, questions arise as to their classification in contexts of so-called modern art. Often early modern pictorial-argumentative examples - pictures and exhibitions for example - have been and continue to be cited. Closely connected to the development and dissemination of supposedly veristic images, pictorial witnesses of the view of authors from the Global North on ‘foreign’ things start to develop.

Niklas Wolf
Niklas Wolf

 

Photography as a technique and medium is questioning terminologies of truth and representation as part of the respective and genuinely inscribed authorship of technically enhanced images since the emergence of early photographic works. Through rapid and widespread distribution in print media, photographic images soon became part of the formulation and documentation of shared visual memory in the Global North.

 

Walker Evans, the father of documentary as one web article states1, heavily influenced the style of modern (not meaning contemporary) photography. His importance as a photographer is essentially based on the photographs he took during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The photographic portraits of the three US-american tenant families Fields, Borroughs and Tingle became icons of photographic history and formed the general visual representation of this era by telling a story (in the sense of a historical narrative) at the same time. They, thinking like Evans here, document the person(a), meaning identity or essence, of white, hardworking americans, who, even if they struggle, keep up their integrity. They represent a socio-cultural construct in insisting on their ability of showing, ordering and defining the truth. As Evans' images focus on an American underclass of the time, they show the author of those pictures as part of their own reality.

 

How does the search for some kind of visual truth in modern photographic images take place when they seem to not look for their own but for the other, which is imagined to be foreign to them and mostly without history? What kind of approach to questions about history and its narratives are they able to re-present as a consequence?

 

Concepts of history are always entities that reveal just as much about their architects as they do about the evidence integrated into them, which represents constructors and construct at the same time. History rarely appears in a singular form, is never neutral and always normative. It is part of its own discourses, demands order as well as testimony. In documentary terms, the latter (the testimony) should legitimize science and itself. Ordering structures and strategies, on the other hand, require places and institutions where they can appear. Gazes at the end of which historical narratives should stand are seldom equal. Often they are one-sided observations, classifying and hegemonic, alienated observations through mimetic imitation or intended othering. The basis of such categorical observations are specific techniques and strategies for appropriation; results are metaphors or emanations of one's own reality.

 

The exhibition African Negro Art, which was on view at the Museum of Modern Art New York in 1935, marks the beginning of the institutionalized exhibiting of so-called (or labeled) African Art at major western art museums. Finally coining a terminology often still used today, 603 African objects were exhibited at the MoMA from March 18 to May 19 1935. Walker Evans was commissioned to (literally) photographically document the objects on display.

 

The resulting images are characterized by long exposure times, which made it possible to guide a light source around the respective object while the cameras aperture was open. The illumination is therefore mostly impressively uniform and soft, strong shadows and the constitution of space are avoided. The images have a hyperfractual clarity.2 The surface of a Bamende facemask for example is uniformly illuminated, the exposure emphasizes the contrasting structures and lines, the formal essence, if one would say so. The actual plasticity of multidimensional objects becomes obvious in a second shot. The face of the same mask appears to be pointedly drawn forward, the slight inclination of a wide comb only becomes apparent here. It almost does not seem to be the same object, so much does the first shot focus on the ornamental surface. Evans used an 8 x 10 medium format camera, the resolution of the images is correspondingly high. The partly dramatic concentration on the object causes a visual monumentalization of things, image sections are often claustrophobic narrow - the objects are not relationally representative, but are re-presented according to their formal characteristics, analyzed by the photographer. This leads to major shifts in reception. One of Evan's most effective images is the photograph of a Pende pendant made of ivory. As if from nowhere, from a timeless, deep black and imponderable background, the masks face emerges from the pictorial ground. The focus lies on the middle plane of its face, which is photographed using a large aperture. Therefore initial blurring starts as early as behind the eyes of the carved face. It is shot from above, not from the front. Viewers are urged to imagine the figure's body (which is neither present nor laid out in the object). Deep shadows let the face appear threatening and alien, framed by sharp contrasts; it becomes clear that the intention of the mask cannot be a good one. Evans gives the alien object an equally alien character, an emotion. The mask stands pars per toto for the ‘other’, the uncanny.

 

Evans photographs were published quite widely. Starting with the exhibitions catalogue they were used in several publications by the exhibitions curator James Johnson Sweeney focusing on the ‘Art’ of Africa in a broader even more general and art historical perspective: the generalizing and educative intention of pictures and text is already foreshadowed in the somewhat holistic titles of such publications - African Folktales and Sculpture (1952) and African Sculpture (1964) for example . Entering the realm of the photobook as a medium Evans photographic images become part of semi-theatrical stagings, some kind of educational character is inscribed into them, especially looking at the close interlacing of text and pictorial object. Ultimately, the message and content of the images are only self-referential. Evans photographs where often published together with the ones of Elitot Elisofon, who amongst other jobs worked as a photojournalist for the LIFE magazine. In The Sculpture of Africa (1958) Elisofon makes use of the photobook as a medium very consciously. For example he uses different photographic views on the same sculptural object to kind of animate it in a cinematic way, using the photobook as an idea to look at three-dimensional properties of things in a two-dimensional way, making the accessible by flipping through the book. Both photographers work is often labeled as having a documentary style, both seem to have a special interest in photographically analyzing pictorial qualities of the surface and materiality of the things they look at. Exposure and contrasts (re)produce haptic qualities and material properties of the things being looked at through the camera quasi argumentatively, based only in the photographic objects themselves.

 

Methodically, Walker Evans' documentarism is ergo characterized by the omission of object-immanent information and the simultaneous genesis of image-immanent content. His pictures do not allow conclusions to be drawn about the size, material and context of the representations; a mostly unspecific monochrome background detaches the objects from the contexts inscribed into them. The photographer repeats aspects of the aesthetically and content-wise neutral display of a modern art exhibition and demands that the images focus on purely formal aspects. The representations do not permit any connection between the signifiers in terms of content. In narrow sections, each object is presented in a very specific view - the photographic images ergo become significant only in a Western canonical art context, shifted to its terminology and histories.

 

Stylistically, Evans' photographs can be described as clean and cerebral.3 The images of African objects are clean (and timeless) in the sense that they are cleansed of any context; they are cerebral in the sense that they are open to new inscriptions and attributions. The highly specific aesthetics of the images serve to conceal and reveal equally specific information at the same time, they are markers of tailored representations4 which are more the presentation of Evans as the author of those images and his techniques to strip pictorial objects from their original terminology and historical narratives, than the representation in the sense of a documentation of the object shown.

 

1)            https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/dec/03/walker-evans-documentary-photography-great-depression-gallery; 15. Juli 2020.

2)           Cf. Campany, David: Walker Evans. The magazine work, Göttingen 2014, S. 52.

3)            Cf. Strother, Z.S.: Looking for Africa in Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik, in: african arts Winter 2013 VOL. 46, No. 4, S. 8 – 21, S. 8.

4)            Cf. Webb, Virginia-Lee: Perfect Documents. Walker Evans and African Art 1935, New York 2000, S. 15.

 

 

References

 

  • Eliot Elisofon: The Sculpture of Africa (text: Ralph Linton, William B. Fagg), New York 1978
  • James Johnson Sweeney, Paul Radin (eds.): African Folktales and Sculpture, New York 1964
  • Kerstin Pinther, Niklas Wolf (eds.): Photobook Africa. Tracing Stories and Imagery, München 2020