The above link is for the essay’ The Lives of Others, (2015) by Stanley Wolukay-Wanambewa. (2015), first appeared in issue 17 of the Aperture Photography App. He starts his essay critiquing a photo book of the Dutch photographer Jan Hoek’s New Ways of Photographing the New Masai (Art Paper Editions, 2014).
Notes and Quotes
- Although Hoek has photographed his Masai subjects as he says they wished to be seen, as in modern dress and not naked or in traditional Masai costume, Walukay-Wanambewa argues that the poor quality of photography and the virtual silence within the written content of the book confers on them (the Masai) responsibility for their unskilled appearance. Thus Hoek has reverted back to the old colonial tradition of the colonial subject responding to white Western preoccupations. And as in so much orientalist imagery, their bodies exist purely to serve.
- There has latterly been a recurrence of pejorative photography of the black body in contemporary photobooks. Such work operates on the implicit premise of the primitivism of the Other, according to which blackness and black bodies are defined by a rudimentary existence in a premodern, mystical world. Such work depends upon this assumption in order to celebrate the vibrancy of African culture, the athleticism of the black body, or to delight in the richness and beauty of black skin. In this way, the black Other serves to alleviate the complexities of modern Western life, by offering an anachronistic alternative to white Western identity.
- New Ways of Photographing the New Masai is characteristic of this growing corpus of photographs that portray the black body as “a socius without writing or the Word, history or cultural complexity,” as Hal Foster wrote in his 1985 essay “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art, or White Skin, Black Masks.”
- Foster’s essay title underscores the way in which blackness serves as a theatrical mask that conceals a troubled white identity.
- The primitive serves as a marker of the antiquated, the uncivilized—as a point of abjection against which Western modernity can be mapped and celebrated.
- The recurrence of orientalist work that deals with race and its representation in such a willfully tenuous fashion suggests the spectacle of the primitive is resurgent in contemporary visual culture. This recurrence stands at odds with other meaningful advances in the general discussion around race and politics, but it also highlights the deeply contested and complex nature of the issues at hand. Just as modernity is inseparable from colonial history, so too is the abjection of “primitive” blackness inseparable from white privilege. We would do well to question the contextualization of race in such photographic work, so that we might more clearly see the white skin lurking beneath its black masks.