Published: November 26, 2002
In and out of Focus:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, images by European and American photographers created and perpetuated ideas and sentiments about the peoples of central Africa who lived under colonial rule. Nearly 200 works by both well-known and unknown photographers are featured in “In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960,” opening December 6 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The exhibition continues through March 16.
This is the first major photography exhibition featuring images from the extensive holdings of the museum’s Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. The presentation also includes photographs on loan from private and public collections in Europe and the United States.
“In and Out of Focus” explores and links two related themes. It examines the role of photographic images in constructing and circulating fantasies, ideas and sentiments in Europe and the United States relating to the peoples of central Africa (an area that includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Republic of Rwanda and the Central African Republic). It then looks at the role of photography in enabling Africans to project and create images of themselves through various means during photographic encounters with foreign photographers and through using photographic technology themselves.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first includes “popular” images that were widely distributed and consumed by an educated public with a general interest in Africa and the colonies. The examples on view demonstrate how Westerners constructed one-dimensional visual representation of African peoples, shaped by their perceptions of race and gender; by scholarly, political and economic colonial agendas; and by the urge to cater to the demand for exotic images by the burgeoning travel industry in the colonies. Postcards, such as one on view that depicts a masquerade in the French Congo, were an important way of circulating these popular images.
Another section features the work of Casimir Zagourski (1883-1944), one of the most successful practitioners. Zagourski operated a photographic studio in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), capital of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Evocative images from his famous photographic portfolio, “Vanishing Africa,” circa 1927-1936, such as a compelling photograph of a young Tutsi woman, are a highlight of the exhibition.
Finally, “In and Out of Focus” explores the role Africans played in photographic interactions. In some instances, they were active participants, “performing” for the cameras and developing strategies to meet the photographer’s demands. The exhibition examines the choreography of such photographic encounters in the form of three case studies. At the same time, Africans increasingly adopted photography. African studio photographers took images of African sitters, challenging the dominant way in which Africans were depicted through the Western lens. For instance, the exhibition includes a portrait of a young man in Leopoldville who poses assertively for an anonymous photographer’s camera.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will sponsor complementary programs including gallery talks, films and a program that take participants behind-the-scenes to see the museum’s photo archives. In addition, a series of family programs will focus on photography in children’s literature relating to Africa.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange Lines. For information, 202-357-4600 or www.si.edu/nmafa.
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