Pay Attention: Imagery Has Always Had Influence

Pay Attention: Imagery Has Always Had Influence

The Weaponization of the African Image and a Modern Attempt to Reclaim

By: Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum

This is a good time to pay attention. Interesting conversations are happening. We are being reminded that imagery has held power long before the existence of Instagram.

This past week, I encountered two jarringly different uses of the African image. First, I was confronted with images used to strip the humanity of Black people. Then, I was surrounded by images created to challenge how we’ve been taught to digest images from that first encounter.

The week opened with me monitoring arguments before the Massachusetts Supreme Court about historic photographs, which were forcibly and derogatorily taken of enslaved Africans here in South Carolina. Tamara Lanier is suing Harvard University for the control of these images of her enslaved ancestors. Part of her documentation includes a genealogical proof, e.g. a way of applying a cohesive research, validation, and logical conclusion on a question of genealogy. Such proofs are one of the services the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History provides, and Ms. Lanier contracted IAAM for her genealogical proof. This has brought the museum into the mix of a tangible example of how the past is a living thing, in constant co-creation and connection with the present. 

That said, I am more interested in the broad questions being posed by this case, than I am in simply who “wins” it.

The images in question are horrible. They are images of enslaved Black people stripped and posed naked for the sole purpose of proving such people are from a lower species of human. When I look at the photo of Renty most often circulated, I am torn between my breaking heart in surprisingly personal sorrow and my grinding teeth in predictably unapologetic anger. I am torn as I imagine the horror of being a man who must decide which is worse: For your daughter to see you spiritually brutalized with your nakedness or for her to see you beaten to death for any hint of resistance on your face – as you watch the same desperate decision roil in her eyes. Ms. Lanier has stated that the origins of her lawsuit are in Harvard’s refusal to engage her in how these images are used. In response, Harvard seems to be leading with an argument of ownership, not stewardship. And there is the larger question.

As a museum professional and social justice advocate, I grapple regularly with questions of control as it pertains to cultural heritage objects. While I do believe that research, access, and education using these objects is critical, we must practice this  with intentionality. For me, Harvard’s claim to these images was severely weakened when the images were “re-found” in 1976, and no one seems to have bothered to ask, “Who are these people?” Regardless of validity of claims by potential descendants, an institution that does not instinctively, deliberately, and continuously reckon with the humanity of enslaved peoples and their stolen autonomy will be a poor steward of objects that once belonged to such people.

Yes. All of this over a few pictures.

Thus, when I ended my week with the Crossed Looks  photography exhibition by Namsa Leuba at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, what I experienced was nothing less than the universe telling me to pay attention! In the exhibition, Ms. Leuba takes Western weaponization of the African image to task in bold, irreverent, and cleverly striking form.

I went from grinding teeth to conspiratorial chuckle in a few dozen images.

In fact, one of the photo series created for the exhibition was a direct call back to the types of images in the Lanier lawsuit. The series was a “see me now” kind of challenge to images of singular, stoic, upright, specimen-like African persons with unreadable expressions. 

On my tour with Halsey Director, Katie Hirsch, I was reminded that this goes beyond dehumanizing stereotypes from centuries ago. As a geeky kid who loved nerdy magazines and nerdy tv, I picked up the allusions to classic National Geographic photo spreads, PBS and BBC “into Africa” documentaries, and outlandish outsider misinterpretations of culture and ritual. 

Though artistic tastes are broad, I’m willing to bet every observer will find at least one image in the exhibit they consider stunningly beautiful, and one image they consider cringe-worthy among the 90+ photographs within the exhibition. Clearly, Ms. Leuba’s background in fashion photography and her attention to designing every element of every image helps.

However, I suspect it is her commitment to co-creation with her subjects that cinches it. There is something about co-creating a work with your subject that removes the artificiality of that work, no matter how fantastical the setting, or the pose, or the costume. 

This exhibition not only seeks to reclaim the African image, but also leads observers down the rabbit hole of our own intentionally socialized and consciously unconscious minimization of African cultural heritage via these photographs. 

No, there is no such African tradition as draping yourself with an aluminum foil under-cape. Did I just think that? Assuming children standing atop a chopped log from a non-indigenous tree species as a special coming of age ritual should never have crossed my mind. Good thing this is all inner monologue. Unapologetically irreverent, and I am chuckling.

We are now living in a time of unprecedented access to images – both historic and modern –and the truths behind them. More importantly, we are in a time of unprecedented democratization of the creation and sharing of such images. This is Ms. Leuba’s first solo exhibition in the U.S.; and this is the first legal challenge to a predominantly white institution’s control of images of Renty and his family. Both of these things are long overdue.

What a time for empathy and interrogation of all we see!

Creative reclamation of cultural heritage and authentic first-voice storytelling and imagery can be a fascinating, welcoming experience for anyone. New dialogue is possible. So, I’m going to keep paying attention because clearly, interesting conversations are happening. 

Commentary by Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum.

Image credit: Namsa Leuba, Jessica, [detail] 2015, from the NGL series, Nigeria.

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