Floris Jespers Three Seated Women 1958

Floris Jespers
1889–1965 Belgian
Three Seated Women 1958
Oil on canvas
The Private Collection of Freddie Booker-Carson and Simon Carson

Visions of Africa, Mike Phillips

For most people in Britain, ‘Africa’ is represented by a series of visual metaphors that might range from images of wildlife and nature reserves to the spears and hair styles of the Masai. The current BBC logo in which young Masai men leap in the air screams ‘Africa!’ in much the same way as a line-up of Bollywood dancers is a statement about the identity of Indians. We interpret what we see in a way that is conditioned and determined by a specific visual history, a fact that is all too often forgotten or ignored when we look at real people in our current presentations and explorations of ‘diversity’.

The importance of the Tate’s new exhibition Seeing Africa is what it tells us about how our view of Africa has been an inheritance of 19th-century colonialism, dominated by biological determinism, by repressed and perverse sexuality, and by paintings and sculptures that ignored the realities of the place and time in favour of a romanticised and polemical vision. By uncovering the main elements underlying the vision brought back to Europe from travels in central Africa by some important European artists, the Tate display makes a link between this visual history and contemporary ways of seeing Africa and Africans – in other words, how our imagery of ‘the other’ is conditioned by our experience of the visual representations.

The display is a selection of paintings and sculptures loaned by Freddie Booker, an African-American collector, and Simon Carson, a British collector, and it is on course to reawaken an intense controversy about relationships between representation and meaning, or seeing and political power. Some of the images in the display are the lesser-known work of prominent artists. Some are by obscure figures about whom little is known. What these artists have in common is a specific way of seeing and portraying their subjects.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, major European artists, such as Picasso, were rediscovering ‘the primitive’, building into their approach the perspectives and characteristics of non-European artefacts, such as central African or Polynesian sculptures. On the other side of the coin was a larger group of European artists, mostly French and Belgian, whose work - rooted in their travels or lives in colonial Africa – is represented in the Seeing Africa display, and whose style was more or less unaffected by any hint of an African aesthetic.

The work of this latter group serves to highlight the genius of the likes of Picasso and Modigliani, who allowed an African aesthetic to influence their own style and way of seeing the world. Instead, the work of the larger group was unremittingly conventional post-impressionist, with the most obvious influences being such artists as Renoir and Manet. In the circumstances, it is not remarkable that most of these artists never drew much attention or have been more or less forgotten.

The overwhelming bulk of this ‘Africaniste’ work came from artists who travelled or settled in the Congo or French Equatorial Africa, and the colonial history of these sites determined the nature of these artists’ relationship with Africa and Africans. For most of the travelling European artists, the people they saw were simply part of a vista of African flora and fauna. Some, such as Floris Jespers, André Hallet and Arthur Dupagne, fell in love with the continent and died there, but the distinguishing feature of their work was an obsessive and overwhelming sexual vision of African bodies.

Outside of the world of art historians and curators, what now makes this group of Africanistes interesting is the fact that their work offers a detailed visual guide to the traumas and psychological complexities of race and racial science in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a compendium of attitudes and beliefs that were the background to the imperial division of the continent into a patchwork of colonial states as agreed among the European powers at the Berlin conference of 1884–5. Even more fascinating is the way that these representations of Africa and Africans constitute a sort of dialogue between the colonising gaze and the development of attitudes and beliefs in Europe about the essential nature of the African continent and its people.

The colonial context of the work is crucial. Until 1908, the entire Congo region was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. He opened it to reckless exploitation by European companies, using forced labour to collect and export rubber and ivory. The brutality of the system was legendary. Campaigners – one was Roger Casement – exposed such punishments as chopping off the limbs of African labourers. So drastic were the effects of this labour regime that an official Belgian commission reported in 1917 that the population of the territory had been ‘reduced by half’ since the start of European occupation in the 1880s. Seizure of territory and the brutal and forcible exploitation of African labour also took place in French Equatorial Africa.

These are the conditions for looking at the images that the Africanistes produced. The main artists of the genre visited or travelled in Central Africa during the most intense periods of colonial exploitation, and their work habitually became the subject of major exhibitions in Europe. Raymond Tellier, for instance, received a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition International of 1937 for his ‘Sudanese’ fresco. In 1954, Arthur Dupagne’s work received a permanent exhibition at the Museum of Central Africa in Brussels. On the other hand, the most revealing aspect of these artists’ approach was the fact that their style was not at all influenced or affected by African perspectives. Instead, the work is about the visual expression of a psychological confrontation which was part of the colonial experience.

The work that crowns the Tate display, and offers the clearest illustration of Africaniste concerns, is a painting by the Belgian artist Fernand Allard L’Olivier. The source of the image is Manet’s Olympia, a nude posed on a sofa attended by a black maidservant. In Manet’s painting, the nude is facing outwards, smiling. In L’Olivier’s painting, the woman lies on her back, her eyes closed. Beside her is a black man playing the violin. The image suggests a repressed sexuality, redolent of strange fantasies. This is a theme that emerges in a more explicit form in most of the Africanistes’ imagery, which displays a pervasive fascination with the physicality of black bodies. One of the more disturbing paintings, by Clément Serneels, is of a pubescent girl caught in an awkwardly pornographic posture. In another frankly homoerotic painting by René Le Suisse, a young man strikes a classical pose, his right hand caressing his buttocks.

Elsewhere the paintings reflect a decorative, romanticised view of the African landscape in which the natives are posed in blocks of light and colour, as though the view from the Paris Left Bank had suddenly been transposed to the African interior. On the other hand, as if unnoticed by the artists, the works are full of reminders about the violent and oppressive environment in which they are situated. In one of Dupagne’s neo-classical sculptures, for instance, a black man is cutting sugar cane with a machete. The figure has a vigorous and muscular beauty, until the downward stroke of the machete reminds you of the mutilation of African labourers in King Leopold’s Congo.

Another illuminating group of images is Paul Daxhelet’s watercolours under the title Tribal Scenes, where black dancers whirl and prance like a series of sketches for jazz dance performances, an insight into the way that notions of ‘blackness’ and black physicality have been constructed and propagated in Europe. Daxhelet’s black bodies caught in various dramatic poses do not look like Africans dancing: instead, they give the impression of images created in the European dance theatre, part of the Jazz Age decor that swept in from the United States between the wars.

These works pose complex questions about representation, about the interplay between artist, subject and viewer, and about the role of the artist in a fragile social and political environment. As a result, the Tate display becomes not only a lesson in the visual history of colonial Africa, but also the starting point of a debate about the political consequences of our visual lexicon.

Essay first published The Guardian, Thursday July 27, 2006