Dahomey children 1967 by Irving Penn
I am not really sure what I should make of this, the fetishisation of brown bodies in western society (purposely left in the singular).
And I wonder isnt it the top of westernisation when us, black people and especially African people start circulating and collecting these pictures and are somehow fetshising ‘ourselves’, not in the same way whiteness does blackness but with this sense of nostalgia for a past that never was, fantasies about what it could have been like if we would have remained untouched or untamed by whiteness, or the pinnacle of our quest for identity: the yearning for a lost paradise far away in time and in space.
I really dont know what to make of this series on Dahomey. Penn is one of my all time favorites but although his portfolio is very diverse for a fashion photographer, this series sticks out so much. What was he looking for?? And I also have all these questions about OUR motives as black people living in this era of globalisation where westernisation is accelerating. Why are we black WESTERNISED people so fascinated by pictures of INDIGENOUS black people?? Why?
Seriously, we complain about people like Eric Lafforgue who make a living out of exploiting pictures of indigenous people in Africa, put there name in big while not even acknowledging the objects of their photos as subjects with a fucking name! This is dehumanisation and we somehow support it because our blogs, our fantasies about Africa - and this also include born and raised Africans - are full of such pictures taken by white westerners in their voyeuristic safaris in the ‘wilderness’.
So where does the fascination comes from??
I can only speak for myself here but first of all I need to explain why these kinds of pictures taken by white people is exploitative, fetishising, dehumanising and harmful to indigenous people. I was asked this question and I am using this opportunity just to answer it. Pictures of white people that are taken and circulated in the mass media represent either celebrities, models or people selling or marketing something, or people with a story, a message or something that makes them special and stand out negatively or positively. NEVER EVER are white people photographed simply because they are white! They may be exotified but never fetishised for their whiteness! I am going to just give an example because it is very hard to explain it. I have lived in two of the most touristic places in the world and never have I ever seen a tourist - westerner or not - take pictures of a random person on the streets just because that person just happen to be a Londoner or a Parisianl. When tourists from around the world come here, they take pictures of places, objects, monuments, well everything that represent the ‘Other’, the exotic, this is at the heart of the tourist experience. White people / westerner don’t represent the ‘Other’! Whereas when tourists - westerners or not - visit the global South, their ‘Other’ are the ‘locals’, who are considered weird/exotic/different/strange little entities in themselves, not relatable human beings with as much depth and complexity. Racism was built on this principle. The problem with ‘otherisation’ is the fact that it is almost always the premise to dehumanization and commodification which inevitably lead to exploitation. Well we can see the damages today of the tourism industry on indigenous people around the world.
So I was wondering why do we, black people, fall for it too and I have to look back at my experience and realised that, though I understand the appeal for indigenous African cultures, I haven’t always felt this way. The more I got westernised - a process that accentuated with me moving here - the more I felt growing inside me this need for that lost paradise, that fantasied, utopian, idyllic Africa as a refuge and also as a reaction, as a defence mechanism to constantly be in full contact with the poison of whiteness. To be at the heart of whiteness exposes you in a very peculiar way to its threat. What is weird though, is the fact that in the west, I am ALWAYS defined by something ‘othering’ such as black, African, PoC or whatever else. I am never just me like white people get to be! Yet I am trying to escape my ‘otherisation’ by seeking refuge in ‘othering’ pictures of indigenous African black people. This for me, is the ultimate proof that first of all, escapism and denial of our reality as oppressed is not the solution and is highly damageable in the long run, which is why I do not believe in all that reclaiming blackness which is the essence of the ‘otherisation’ of people of African descent and is also based on all that ‘Ancient’ and ‘Indegenous’ Africa as an utopia; Secondly, westerners are still the ultimate definers of who we are; they re-wrote our history and remain to this day the ultimate providers of narratives and images about Africa!! And obviously those images and narratives are deeply anchored into white supremacy! This is also why I have been arguing against that fake ‘black unity’ crap which is actually western-centric to its core leads a lot of Africans - well I know since I was one of them - to fall for a western definition of themselves and not pursue their narratives or tell their stories with them at the center, from their point of view instead of getting trapped in false identities defined by the WESTERN WORLD, either by white or black westerners.
So from our point of view as black people in the west, our native cultures of fantasies about indigenous cultures serve as refuges which is in stark contrast with the reality of indigenous pictures or everyday people back home. I have noticed that here black migrants take so much pride in their cultures yet back home, the sad truth is that most of us try to get rid of it as fast as possible in our quest for the western nec plus ultra. Those same indigenous peoples who are fiercely fighting for the survival of the culture, for the integrity of their identity are oppressed, humiliated, ostracised and rejected by those of us who have chosen westernisation and completely embrace the fallacious idea of progress through western means. I personally remember how Pygmees and Wodaabe for instance were despised, looked down upon, mocked and ridiculed. Yet their pictures are everywhere on Tumblr.
I find this quite pathetic and hypocritical from us westernised Africans. It is tragic to come all the way here to realise that we would never fully integrate something in which we are the perpetual other and that we have internalised our oppression so much that our behaviours and thoughts mirror those of our oppressors.
So in this part of the world, we are seeking refuge in fantasies about indigenous people while back home indigenous people’s main threat is us.