Jordan Pascoe (Philosophy, PhD Program, GC)
Jennifer Bajorek opened her fascinating paper on the “open photograph” and the “decolonial archive” by posing a series of questions: what obligations do we have to have to keep French photographic patrimony on the ground in post-colonial francophone Africa? What institutions or institutional constellations might fulfill this obligation? What does it mean that this history is being auctioned off in a thriving Eurpean art market? When are archives allowed to decay in a post-colonial context? What archival and institutional practices might constitute a decolonial relationship to the photographs and history in question?
Having posed these questions, Professor Bajorak worked through her definition of “open photographs” – photographs that are itinerant (as both objects and images), that must be understood both in their historical or immediate contexts and in their present contexts in archives, museums, or art auctions, that are both material objects and images that transcend or outlast their existence as material objects. That the photographs in question are African, she argues, positions them in a particular relation to nation-building and national identity that may be unintelligible to those of us in the global North, where the temporal relationship between the modern nation-state and photography is reversed. African photography – in its many and various forms, including photos taken by Europeans in Africa, or of Africans and photos taken by Africans – maps both the production of a certain kind of colonial fantasy (one arguably extended in the thriving contemporary market for these photos in the global North) and the historical production of the African nation-state. Despite their historical and political significance, the patrimony of the open photograph is difficult to pin down. Through a series of images, anecdotes, and accounts of the challenges of grant writing for archives in post-colonial Africa, Professor Bajorek points to the difficulty of building these archives in an Africa which is necessarily and historically transnational and itinerant, and where the infrastructure for photographic archiving is almost absurdly limited. At the same time, she highlights the political nature of the archiving process itself, which is often positioned by those in the global North as a practice of modernization in the postcolonial state, contrasting a now of the archiving moment to a now-distant then, producing narratives of history, progress, and national identity. It is difficult to imagine an archive of successful anti-colonial movements and post-colonial independence without photography, but too often the photographs aren’t there: they’re circulating in the art markets of the global North, and in photographic archives at institutions in the global North. Professor Bajorek illustrated the complexities involved in this discussion towards the end of the discussion, in response to a question about one of the images she had displayed, a photograph of a young African woman in Saint-Louis, Senegal, standing in an Indigo dress in front of a wall of photographs and portraits. Professor Bajorek’s reading of this photo, which elaborated the history of Saint-Louis as a cosmopolitan and colonial capital known for great wealth and ostentation, the politics of shipping Indigo in the first half of the 20th century, and the practice of borrowing photographs from neighbours as part of a marriage ceremony in order to create walls of portraits like the one depicted, nicely demonstrated the layers and layers of history revealed in such photos. At the same time, her tale of tracking this photo through contemporary Saint-Louis, facing linguistic and gender barriers and meeting people who knew the woman in question but would not divulge her name spoke to the challenges involved in interpreting or archiving such photos as an outsider from the global North. This discussion suggested that whatever the temptations of the global art market or the archiving impulse of institutions of the global North, the full story of such photographs – or, at least, their utility as the bearers of a particular history or narrative – might be obfuscated.
Fiona Lee (English, PhD Program, GC)
As a supplement to the Jordan Pascoe’s summary above, here are the two questions I posed as the designated discussant for that afternoon:
On the decolonial archive
The paper’s emphasis on the material and institutional aspects of the study and archiving of photography in West Africa essentially asks the following question: what role can the archive play in rethinking the narratives of modernity, the relationship between the Global North and South? Moreover, Bajorek’s attention not just to the preservative function of the archive, but, its creative aspect--i.e. the archiving process--and how it is enmeshed in the political, social and economic. In positing the idea of a “decolonial archive,” the archiving process not only serves to preserve the past, but opens possible future directions as well. Given West Africa history of colonialism and present day political, economic, social asymmetries in relation to the Global North, the question that comes up in the call to create a decolonial archive, for whom or in whose interest is it created? That is, does the decolonial archive presuppose imagining a community, one that is beyond the strictures of the postcolonial nation-state, but also calls for a different relation between Global North and South as simply consumer and supplier of raw cultural material respectively?
On the open photograph
The openness of a photograph implies that it demands to be read. Reading, to put it in other way, is a way of apprehending a photograph, even as its openness will always already exceed the reader’s interpretation. The paper also points out that photographs can serve as an index of desire, both of those who photograph and those who subject it as a form of cultural evidence. Thus, photographs also enable a reading of its maker and its viewer. Photographs also serve as a catalyst for invoking memory, not necessarily one about what is in the photo but one that is related to it but absent, lost or destroyed. The photograph then is not just a surface to be read, but an object that affects another. Having recognized the openness of photographs, what different practices of reading are required, especially in the interest of building a decolonial archive? Does the rethinking of our institutions require re-orienting our ways of reading, “rearranging our desires” as Gayatri Spivak would put it? Can this openness, that which calls for yet exceeds the capture of reading, be understood as subalternity, particularly its mute quality?