White People Are Looking At You
by Sebastien Boncy
Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara, Nigeria 2005 © Pieter HugoPieter Hugo’s images (I’m speaking specifically of The Hyena and Other Men and Nollywood) make me uncomfortable: weird, highly stylized, meticulously crafted images of crazy looking niggers doing crazy looking shit. Hold on, let me check myself before this dissolves into an ugly, useless attack. Let’s give Hugo the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take it for granted that Pieter Hugo is a talented and conscientious photographer and assume he has not a racist bone in his body. Somehow, that isn’t enough and I’m still disturbed.
Maybe it has something to do with the way Hugo and his defenders are so quick to dismiss or minimize concerns about the racial context that this work travels in. Hugo himself denies any claims of othering black Africans and turns the table on his accusers by calling them "condescending" "white liberals" that deny his subjects any real agency in the fabrication of these images, but we know that permission during process does not mean control or even approval over the final product. Larry Clark and Diane Arbus had permission, yet the ethics of their work is always front and center of any serious discussion about their legacy. It is not just about what goes into the work, it is also important to consider where it’s headed, where it comes from and who’s doing the buying.
Hugo is worldwide. He has a gallery in South Africa, one in the USA, one in Italy, and one in the Netherlands. None of those countries are known for their happy, well-integrated black populations. The people sipping wine and spending money at most Hugo openings are highly unlikely to have any significant knowledge of Nigeria or even first-hand knowledge of being part of the black-beans-for-dinner-three-nights-in-a-row club. And these pictures do not offer any sort of education for one unfamiliar with Nigeria. Now in a Nigerian gallery or magazine these would be very different images: the audience would be able to decipher and discuss the references, the meanings of the fictions and icons that are specific to Nigerian lives, Nigerian economies, Nigerian histories, Nigerian religions. What is an Italian aristocrat thinking when confronted with a moolignon Vader with his dick out? I think it is beautiful that Hugo trusts the audience to come up with complex and insightful conclusions, but I also think it is naive if he thinks he can just toss these photographs at societies that continue to oppress their black populations and not expect negative readings of race to stick to or be amplified by the work.
Azuka Adindu. Enugu, Nigeria, 2008 © Pieter HugoIn her essay for Nollywood, Stacy Hardy hits up against the wall of inequity early. It is interesting to look at how she circumvents it. Hardy offers up a reading of Nollywood that claims that the work speaks of transgression and the disintegration of barriers and so invests its subject with strong sexy magic that will rewire Western minds (These niggers are meant to scare us out of or cultural and intellectual torpor). She invokes the vampire myth as the organizing principle for her arguments. Vampires are for Victorian sensibilities. I am from a culture that shares many similarities with Nigeria (Haiti) and the vampire holds little cultural significance in a society where the same barriers are so fluid. The Victorian conjures up the Vampire as a tool, as a weapon against the moribund strictures of his own culture. But Nigeria is not conjured up, it is not immaterial invention, and it is not for the Victorian. Transposed to other images of black bodies in white media Hardy’s reading would pretty much explain black-stud-white-chick porno as another strong political statement when we all know that the charge from those films come from the regimented, carefully controlled illusion of taboo breaking: the white viewer and producer are still in control no matter how many Jennas and Taylors make the acquaintance of Lexington Steele’s superlative member.
Korewah group, aboriginal, Chota Nagpoor from The People of IndiaHugo’s images are not coded in a way to upend or question Western conventions because there is nothing pictorially or narratively challenging or dissonant here. These images feel very familiar to me. I spent a bit of time looking and discussing colonial photography (mostly the British in India) in the second half of last year, and I am getting flashbacks to The People of India Edited by J. Forbes Watson and John William Kaye for the Viceroy of India. Many of the compositional tropes started by the photographers of the East India Company and refined during the British rule of India were developed to present the Indian as specimen, to fix him in trade roles and a past glory without the Western ideal of individuality. Those same techniques and attitudes are buried deep in much of today’s documentary and journalistic photography. This is why we have someone like Simon Norfolk working so hard to rewrite the rulebook on documentary work. It is possible that Hugo is using these archaic tropes in a subversive manner, but I am not seeing it and I have yet to see a sensible argument that would separate something like The Hyena and Other Men from this noxious canon. Hugo says that we are supposed to ask questions about Nigeria’s distribution of wealth and the situations that would force men to such strange dangerous livelihoods. But I don’t know how to read wealth in Nigeria in a visual sense, I don’t see the community that these men are from or where they work, I have no idea how the rest of Nigeria looks upon their activities. Most of my assumptions would be probably useless and Hugo’s photographs do not inform or explain.
This is not about Hugo really. It’s about the necessity for dialogue about issues of race. It’s about remembering that systematic racism is hidden in every aspect of our contemporary lives and it is very disturbing for any concerned marginalized out there when people are too quick to close down that avenue of discussion. Finally it is about the unpredictable lives of images and how good intentions are often the least of all factors.