The Power Behind the GazePosted: April 17, 2012
Malick Sidibe is a West African photographer from Mali known for his portraits of youth and youth culture in the capital Bamako. When I first looked at one of his photographs my body vibrated with complex emotions of love and frustration. Love because of the beautiful images of blackness staring confidently into the camera’s gaze; exuding life and power. It was a different representation of African people; one that veered away from the colonial images of Africa, as object, reflected in western culture and media. It made me realize how so much of my early exposure to Africa has been through a western and Eurocentric gaze, which treats Africa and African’s as objects to be observed, studied and exploited for the western viewer/reader. Africa has often been presented to me through the thoughts and gaze of White people. This, of course, effects the outcome of the work. For an example, when I look at photographs of Africans in the National Geographic there is a sense of distance between the subject and the photographer that feels cold. I believe that this is due to the material and cultural divisions between the subjects and their foreign photographers, who are there for their own purposes. There is no organic connection to the community; and they are not trying to build one that would support the self-determination of the community. Sidibe’s portraits, on the other hand, radiate a warmth that comes from the relationship between the photographer and his subjects.
During the imperialist scramble for Africa France seized Mali, where it ruled until 1960, when Mali achieved it’s ‘independence’. The European domination of Mali, like all colonized land and people, created an antagonistic, oppressive and exploitative relationship between the indigenous Africans and the European colonizers, who now controlled everything. African’s did not have access to luxury items, such as cameras. And the European ruling-class, who did, chose not to photograph the humanity of African people. That would go against their own colonial ideology, which justifies their dehumanizing actions. Sidibe had the talent and intellect as well as good luck to be able to study at a university and work for a French photographer, where he was able to get practical experience and access to a camera. At the time it was rare for a European photographer to sell a camera to one of their African employees. In 1958 Sidibe opened up his own studio in Bamako, where he immediately got work taking photographs of the youth and their friends, parties and other gatherings. Sidibe was able to capture the movement of the people within the country during a revolutionary anti-colonial/post colonial period.
Sidibe has been doing photography since the 1950’s, and continues to work in the same little studio. However, it was only in the 1990’s that his work got any recognition in the west. This explains why I heard about him only a year ago, and why his photos immediately stood out in stark contrast to the sea of commodified images expressed in cultural anthropological studies and documentaries. Why is this so often the case? Because this is the legacy of imperialism. People, especially men, of European descent are given more privilege in society; even amongst the working-class, and this is due to western/ European Empire. The development of capitalism throughout the world was/is through force that violently uprooted people from their lands, and either proletarianized them or enslaved them. In order to prevent class struggle developing among the different sectors of the oppressed (enslaved indigenous people, enslaved Africans, European indentured servants and proletarians) the concept of ‘race’ was invented by the bourgeoisie helping to define a hierarchical division of labor. For an example, Africans/black people were defined as ‘inferior’ ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. This justified their enslavement and continual lower position within the division of labor post slavery. Materially, poor whites were not always much better off than black people, but often had more access to material opportunities and better paying jobs. This was, and is, at the expense of the oppressed brown and black people.
The division of labor is still incredibly hierarchical, and the fundamental conditions aren’t much different. People of color, who share an indigenous and colonial history, are still positioned within the bottom layers of the working class and unemployed. They make the least money, are the most vulnerable to state violence, fill up the numerous prisons, and continue to live in impoverished and oppressive conditions that are only getting worse with the economic crisis. White people have more material wealth and therefore more movement in society. They are able to travel and vacation in foreign lands. They have more access to privilege institutions, such as universities, where they are able to study abroad. I am not implying that people of color do not go to college; but the fees/tuition hikes, along with cuts to financial aid, are effectively pushing out working-class people of color.
My focus on the white university student and their relationship to the colonial gaze was sparked up again recently after I read through a debate between my comrade Crunch and a mutual acquaintance about whether white college students should be able to go to Africa or not. Crunch was speaking to the material privilege white grad students have in bourgeois society, and how it gives them access to move more freely in this world, and the emotion that that stirs up in black people, who long for such a journey, but lack the capital to get there. The acquaintance seemed to take the position personally, disagreeing with Crunch’s comments, and asking him if white academics should only study in Europe, thus reproducing a Eurocentric view of history. Crunch was not trying to reproduce borders; rather he was trying to place the influx of white academics in Africa within the context of a colonial history and white supremacist capitalist system that has given white people more material and social privilege in this society, and therefore more privilege. I believe Crunch sums up the emotion and politics quite well below in an excerpt from the debate,
“White kids (the grad students going to Africa) have the privilege of accessing a land that is sacred to me and my people because of our connection to it and the trauma surrounding our removal from that space and the oppression of that space, on all levels, by the White Imperialist nations since they looked down and realized it was there to conquer. These kids, who usually have vestiges of white privilege because we are all socialized and have our own vestiges of the old society within us that need to be transformed, go to Africa with their White gaze and analyze, in some part from that, they then have the privilege of coming back and becoming an authority gaining social status, economic benefits or just “get into heaven” (anti-racist) points from everyone. And they, most times, have faulty- racist- or other wise incomplete and problematic analysis.
A lot of Black kids, from all over the Diaspora, don’t have that privilege because Black people, globally, have become mules to White Supremacist Capitalism and the permanent mascots of the under classes- meaning getting the worse material/spiritual/psychological treatment from the society. They cannot, or must work 10 times as hard as the white kids to access a land that should be free for them to access and would provide a kind of spiritual healing and knowledge. It would also heal the Diaspora in many ways.
Also, Africans need to speak for Africans. I don’t want to read someone elses study of shit. And if we say that those people don’t have the means of creating that study and having it seen then we must ask ourselves why? Which means we must confront White racism and the rape of Africa by the White imperialist West which is still murdering, raping, colonizing, and otherwise fucking up the country. White people need not go to Africa! Period! I thought this discussion was done when we acknowledged Sarah Bartman and Apartheid.”
The university is a product of the capitalist system, and therefore reflects the bourgeois social relations of worker/boss, master/slave, that structure the world creating an antagonism between who owns the means of production and wealth in the world, and who doesn’t. The objectification of the African through colonization is reflected in the university. The academy is not about reproducing revolutionary subjects; Its about reproducing and maintaining the structures of the ruling class. Sometimes this results in community programs and direct services too, but all this does is maintain the status quo. People of color have always been objectified within the academy, reflecting the objectification that occurs within society and has been occurring since our lands and bodies have been appropriated by the European ruling class. When white Phd students go to Africa they are representing these institutions and politics. And even if they personally disagree with them they must be mindful of them, because if that privilege is not understood then it will continue to be reproduced within our social relations. And that is not revolutionary.
Art, as an expression of the people, has always been a powerful weapon to inspire and nurture, and Sidibe’s photographs reflect that. It is so important for the oppressed to express their own truths and narratives, because we must understand and feel the power within them and our own agency. This will not be felt through the academic studies conducted by white grad students, which often leads to further silencing and invisibility. Through the sharing of our stories through words, visual art, theory and struggle, we become closer to each other. When we become closer to each other we develop understanding and compassion for our similarities and differences, while learning how to support each others own power together collectively. This work is revolutionary, because we live in a system, which denies us the opportunities and tools to do that. When we are alienated from each other we will divide and conquer ourselves, while the system reaps the benefits. This work is revolutionary, because when we come together on the basis of expressing each others truths we begin to see the truth about the system, and perhaps decide that such a harmful system is no longer necessary, because we have found each other. And finally, this work is revolutionary, because not only does it help us understand what we are against, but, most importantly, it helps us collectively cast visions for what we are for.