This is one of thirty-seven colour photographs in Christina de Middel’s series The Afronauts 2012 (Tate P82235–P82271). Each one depicts the artist’s imagined version of events surrounding the Zambian Space Program of the 1960s. Featuring portraits, landscapes and close-ups of miscellaneous objects and ephemera, the images are dream-like and highly stylised, with a playful quality that is echoed in the (often made-up) words of the work titles. In contrast to this, de Middel’s choice of perspectives and the manner in which she has posed her models is suggestive of the documentary tradition, with the series cumulatively creating a narrative.
The Afronauts exists as both a limited edition photobook and series of editioned colour inkjet prints and in addition to these is a body of ephemera (such as manipulated news documents, reproductions of letters and technical sketches) that de Middel has made to support the exhibition of the work. The thirty-seven inkjet prints in Tate’s collection are a selection from the wider series. They exist in an edition of five and are printed to different sizes. The book was produced in a print run of 1,000 copies and brought the artist international recognition when it was published in 2012.
Having originally trained in photojournalism and worked for six years as a staff photographer at a Spanish newspaper, from 2009 de Middel began her practice in fine art by looking at different means of representing real events. Her point of interest then, as now, was the ‘true stories people don’t believe and fake stories they do’ (quoted in the Guardian 2014, accessed September 2014). The Afronauts is based on the former: the true story of the Zambian space programme that took place in the early 1960s which de Middel first encountered via a YouTube video of a 1964 news clip (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9Do3dz9TR0, accessed 23 June 2017).
In a departure from her previous role as a reportage photographer, in The Afronauts de Middel uses suggestion and fiction as the means of communicating an event which (especially prior to this series) was little documented. To stage events as she imagined them, de Middel spent a year shooting in various locations. The images in the series were shot mainly in Spain but also Senegal, Italy, the United States, Israel and Palestine. While de Middel took some images from her existing archive of photographs shot whilst working on commissioned projects, others are the result of produced location shoots involving storyboards, model casting and costumes. The brightly-patterned fabric outfits worn by the ‘astronauts’ in many of the images, for example, were designed by de Middel and sewn by her grandmother in a West African- inspired fabric that de Middel sourced from a market in Whitechapel, London; while their space helmets were made by cutting holes into old streetlight covers. Other images that feature a baby (Indian) elephant were shot in a zoo near Alicante. These references act as visual shorthand for the location in which real events took place, while shifting emphasis away from the literal or descriptive and onto the imagined and surreal.
De Middel has described the playful and imaginative tone of the project as a celebration of the hope and ambition of events that inspired it – not poking fun, but using the combination of a compelling but seemingly fantastical story together with a surreal aesthetic in order to ‘break the rules of veracity [and try to] push the audience into analyzing the patterns of the stories we consume as real’ (unpublished artist’s statement prepared for Tate 2013).
Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, The Photobook: A History Volume III, London 2014.
‘Cristina de Middel’s best shot: Recreating Zambia’s Space Program’, The Guardian, 11 June 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/11/my-best-shot-cristina-de-middel-zambia-space-programme, accessed September 2014.
September 2014, updated Sarah Allen, June 2017
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