- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

The National Museum of African Art's exhibit "In and Out of Focus: Images From Central Africa, 1885-1960" demonstrates that photographers can manipulate the perceptions of entire populations. One striking example in the exhibit is the photos used to project romantic images of the Belgian Congo in the early 1900s, which later were perceived as showing the cruelties practiced under the notorious King Leopold II (1835-1909).

Consider the hand-colored postcard "Receiving Loads of Rubber in the Mayome Region, Congo Free State" (circa 1910). It was one of thousands sent home to Belgium to show Leopold's economic successes. Rubber, ivory and minerals were the rich natural resources he had found there. Leopold exploited them, and native Africans, to the hilt.

Harvesting rubber from the vast inner reaches of the Congo required huge numbers of laborers. It was one of the cruelest and most devastating forced-work programs ever instituted.

When missionaries and travelers relayed stories of Leopold's ruthless practices among many punishments, farm overseers were instructed to cut off workers' hands when they didn't produce enough the same photo became a symbol of oppression of the native people.

Identical images that transmitted the exoticism of the rich Congo Free State that was Leopold's personal property, along with Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1890) and Mark Twain's "King Leopold's Soliloquy" (1905), finally brought him down as the cruelest of the European despots then colonizing Africa.

It is said that when Leopold aged, he complained that the camera was the only individual he could not bribe. He was forced to give up the Congo as his possession in 1908.

The museum has drawn on its extensive, unparalleled Eliot Elisofon archives for the first time to mount a major exhibition of African photography. The photos that Mr. Elisofon, a Life magazine photographer, took from 1947 to 1973 form the core of the 125 collections in the archives.

The first section of the exhibit showing Leopold's reign of terror depicts the African as victim, although exhibit curator Christine M. Geary chose not to display photos of the many Africans disfigured during Leopold's reign.

She contrasts this with a later grouping of images demonstrating that Africans actively participated in photographic interactions, became "performers" for the camera and often directed how they would be portrayed. "I organized the section to show that Africans were by no means always victimized," Ms. Geary says.

The curator's thesis is a valid one, and she documents it extensively in the 200-work exhibit. Yet many of the photos are small, especially in the first grouping, and elementary in their artistic approach.

What makes the show outstanding, in many ways, is Alan Knezevich's design of the exhibit. As chief designer for the museum, he decided to create a dramatic and different visualization of Africa around the photos. He made the photos into enlarged slides that he continuously projects across the tops of the galleries onto transparent fabric scrims. It's a drop-dead-gorgeous solution to the problem of showing large numbers of photographs that can make for dull exhibits.


The display gets better aesthetically as it goes along. The expatriate Polish photographer Casimir Zagourski (1883-1944) produced extraordinary photos of Central Africans, and the section on his fine-art photography is the highlight of the show.

He opened a studio in Leopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo, in 1924 and soon received commissions from the colonial government. Yet his passion was to document what he regarded as the disappearing Congo.

Zagourski, who had learned aerial photography while an officer in the Russian army, captured central Africa as it had never been seen before or after. He created Congolese portraits with sensitivity using specialized techniques, such as the "Tutsi Woman, Rwanda" (1927 to 1937). He moved in for a dramatic close-up that emphasizes her full, sensuous lips. The photographer had her look softly, but directly, out at the viewer.

He showed Congolese love of scarification in "Yakoma Dancer, Belgian Congo or A.E.F. (now Central African Republic)" (1929 to 1937). His stunning "Mangbetu Coiffure in Niapu, Oriental Province, Belgian Congo," of a woman with an astonishing raised and elongated headdress, demonstrates his superb use of unusual camera angles. Here, as in many other portraits, he shot from a low angle that heroized the subject.

Zagourski almost obsessively recorded Congolese dances, headdresses, chieftains, women, masquerades and fishermen. His images of landscapes transmitted the vastness and beauty of central and eastern Africa. When he died in Leopoldville in 1944, he left a lasting legacy of photographs that shaped the image of central Africa for years to come.

Ms. Geary believes the exhibit's last section, one in which Africans often directed the making of their own images, is the most innovative. She speculates that the Congolese of the time were born "hams" and enjoyed "performing" in front of the camera. She also tells in the exhibit wall labels that Africans had developed strategies for dealing with Western colonialists and photographers. "It was about survival, that's why they posed," she says.

Two photographic albums in the Eliot Elisofon collection, taken by the Belgian White Fathers missionaries in the 1920s, show the collaboration of royals and missionaries to create noble Tutsi images. One, of "King Musinga and the Royal Family, Rwanda" (circa 1910), shows a carefully orchestrated portrait of the king, his wives and queen mother Nyirayahi, wrapped in expensive cloths. Photos like this projected images of an African aristocracy to Europe and America.

Tutsi queen mothers, like the kings, became favorites of Western photographers. They were prized for their exotic and complicated headdresses, as in the photo of "Queen Mother of Rwanda, Mother of King Rudahigwa" (1927 to 1937). Feathers and braided beads fall over the face of this beautiful woman, making her both desirable and mysterious.

Mr. Elisofon traveled to the Congo in 1947 to portray the elaborately dressed "Mbop Mabiinc maMbeky, King of Kuba." Undoubtedly, the photo was shot to impress the king's followers.

The show will please not only admirers of Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa" or readers of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The young Polish sailor Konrad Korzeniowski, better known as Conrad, wrote the thinly veiled autobiographical account about his experiences as master of a Belgian steamer traveling on the Congo River in 1890.

"In and Out of Focus" fascinates by showing the many views Western photographers created of these peoples over 75 years. It also introduces an innovative way of presenting photography, one that will stay remarkable for many years.


WHAT: "In and Out of Focus: Images From Central Africa, 1885-1960"

WHERE: Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas and New Year's, through March 16

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-4600

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