Aaron B. sent us a link to a fashion spread called Out of Africa at the Daily Mail featuring individuals from, the accompanying text specifies, “the Surma and Mursi tribes of East Africa’s Omo Valley.” Please scroll through the images and see the commentary below (as well Aaron’s own illluminating interpretation at his blog).
First, notice how the individuals in the images are supposed to represent “Africa.” Africa, of course, is an immense continent with dozens of countries and hundreds of cultures. But here a couple “tribes” are supposed to represent all of Africa. And those tribes are notably primitive. Anne McClintock* coined the excellent term “anachronistic space” to describe the bizarre way in which we tend to imagine (mostly subconsciously) that, as we go from the U.S. to Africa, we are going back in time and visiting our own primitive selves.
Second, Aaron notes how the author of the accompanying text seems “struck by the strange paradox of Africans having fashion.” Because fashion is a modern thing, of course, and these are just primitives. Here is some of the text:
With colourful make-up of bright yellows, startling whites and rich earth-reds, flamboyant accessories and extraordinarily elaborate decorations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the designs in these images originated in the fevered mind of some leading fashionista.
Yet far from the catwalks of New York, London or Paris, these looks are the sole creation of the Surma and Mursi tribes of East Africa’s Omo Valley.
Inspired by the wild trees, exotic flowers and lush vegetation of the area bordering Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, these tribal people have created looks that put the most outlandish creations of Western catwalk couturiers to shame.
As they paint each other’s bodies and make bold decisions about their outfits (all without the aid of mirrors), it seems that the only thing that motivates them is the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off to other members of the tribe.
Notice the way that the author exoticizes them with references to color, a natural frivolity, and the use of words like “fevered,” “outlandish,” “wild,” and “exotic” (exotic to who?). They are motivated by “sheer fun.” And aren’t we delighted?
Some more questions to consider:
What does it mean that people in the U.K. (and the U.S.) are consuming these images? What is the relationship between these images and colonialism? These images and the historical emergence of the idea of race? These images and the continued re-inscription of race as a social construction?
Anyway, how often do you see non-models in fashion shoots? What is the reason for presenting them as “authentic”? What kind of authenticity are they going for?
What are the consequences of portraying “Africa” this way? How do such images interact with “development” rhetoric about how Africa is un- or under-developed, developing, or undevelopable?
Who benefitted from this photo shoot? Did the individuals get paid? How much?
* REFERENCE: Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context by Anne McClintock (London: Routledge, 1995).