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Questionable intent

African portraiture takes a skewed view


Filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl took photographs of her fellow Germans at the 1934 Olympics and at Nuremberg that made them look like supermen. She has been credited as one of the greatest propagandists of all time. Riefenstahl's work was as ethnographic as they come: a study of a nation as superhuman, where the strength and will of the land was inferred on concrete biceps and abs of steel.

Sure, such ethnographic photography can have its downside. For every "Master Race", there is the cultural equivalent of the kids chosen last for kickball. The tendency to reduce a population to its physical presence crops up in depictions of Africans, who Western photographers have often portrayed as an exotic riddle, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.

The Africans in Hector Acebes' photographs are many things: sexy, wary, flirtatious, contemplative, proud, irritated, amused. Acebes often frames his Maasai women and Nigerian grandmothers from a low angle against a blue sky, endowing them with a profundity that mimics the monumentality of Riefenstahl's athletes. But while Riefenstahl's Aryans are meant to suggest something supernatural and touched by God, Acebes' Africans are photographed against vast plains and outside simple huts in a way that defines them through their proximity to the earth. Like Riefenstahl, Acebes' legacy seems contestable. He is both admirable for his often gorgeous, formally striking portraiture of Africans, but also regrettable, for propping up a view of African women as erotic spectacles dwelling in some clothing-optional Eden.

Three times in the late '40s and early '50s, Acebes, a Colombian-born photographer and filmmaker whose work is little known here, made a path across the continent like one of those snaking graphics on an old Hollywood adventure serial. His journey cut the continent in two, taking him from the Western port of Dakar until he hit the sea and the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar.

Those wondering just what Acebes represented -- ennobler or exploiter -- may be equally mystified by the perspective of the exhibition at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. His images can, in the tradition of good portraiture, dignify and beautify. But like so many Western photographers before and after him (including Riefenstahl, who after her up-with-Aryan years distanced herself from the "Master Race" and took up tribal Africa as her next muse), Acebes molds Africa, especially African women, into a familiar putty: nudity and breasts galore makes the discussion of Acebes' particular artistry difficult to differentiate from the countless nudie cuties who constituted the ethnographic centerfolds of National Geographic.

Acebes' photographs probably played their part, unconsciously or not, in determining what "Africa" meant for prying, nonnative eyes, as surely as the pages of a 1953 Life magazine (included beneath a glass vitrine in the show).

Implying just how controlling and aggressive a camera's vision can be, Engaging the Camera features contact sheets of Acebes' photo sessions. The final image he uses is often formally posed and zeroes in on esoteric details like earrings turning earlobes into ropes of spaghetti or hairstyles that transform hair into shapes like wishbones or church lady hats. It's as if Acebes is trying to document all of the permutations of village fashion flair for the folks back home: stack curls in Georgia, fades in the Bronx. But the film-style series of small images in the contact sheets are anything but static. His subjects ham, smile, vamp and hide their faces from the camera. They seem real in a way the stoic, sculpture-still subjects in his final images do not.

For additional contrast, Spelman has included work by Malian photographer Seydou Keita, an African photographer of roughly the same period who took commercial photographs of African men and women the way they wanted to be seen: fully clothed, sophisticated, happy, in control.

Undoubtedly, like so many travelers who delve deeply into a country, Acebes was enraptured and romanced by his subjects. How could he not be?

But there is a strange detail in every portrait. Every image is of an "Unidentified" man or woman. Did Acebes never bother to ask for their names?


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