• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Laughing at the Other [Cristina de Middel]

Laughing at the Other [Cristina de Middel]

Laughing at the Other [Cristina de Middel]

Cristina de Middel and her Afronauts

This text was written after long consideration, and after seeing the artist talk about her project at the Athens Photo Festival.

I guess it is weird to see a black guy wearing a spacesuit and a helmet, and it seems to be comic to even think about an African cosmonaut. In a same way as it is very unlikely to find Caribbean ski jumper or Norwegian beach volley player. But why is that so? The answer lies in the long colonial and post-colonial history of the world. It is all about dominance. Since the 1950s a national space programme has been perceived as a strategic investment and, above all, as a prestige of the world’s superpowers. But there were and there are other players too. When I saw increasingly popular and hence omnipresent work Afronauts by Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel at the exhibition of the Deutsche Börse nominees in 2013 at The Photographers’ Gallery in London I found it visually striking but at the same time almost offensive. I could not get rid of the feeling that it is directly and indirectly ridiculing the deprivileged people of what the Westerners like to call the third world.

The work consists of staged and found images of black cosmonauts in improvised and very exotic spacesuits. De Middel refers to the space programme that was developed by ambitious and idealistic school teacher in the state of Zambia in early 1960s in order to pursue development and to compete with the US and the USSR. Of course, the programme which truly was unrealistic and naïve did not work out in the end. It was abolished in 1964. There were number of reasons for this newly independent and traditionally impoverished state could not cope with the costs of such project.

Cristina de Middel, The Afronauts, 2011

Cristina de Middel, The Afronauts, 2011

At the time western journalists openly ridiculed Zambia’s attempt to develop its own space agency. But it seems that the discourse has not changed dramatically since then, even after the documentary by Frances Bonomo and series of photographs by Cristina de Middel, both titled Afronauts, were produced and published. De Middel’s photographs are actually rather sympathetic, in a way innocent and comic, though deeply patronising. They do not properly consider wider historical and political context of Zambia after the liberation from the colonial tyranny. And that part is not comic at all. The state of Zambia became independent in 1964 under the socialist government and immediately went through immense programme to build its infrastructure and economy. Eventually the state has been indebted, like so many countries, with IMF and other creditors. Like most of the African countries, it has been facing ongoing economic occupation that replaced previous direct political rule. Therefore, the plan to build industry, welfare, education as well as space programme was condemned to a failure from the very beginning.

The Afronauts could be seen as a metaphor of that failure but they also show how people of the so called first world perceive such processes. Mostly they perceive it with humour which is not based on self-irony but rather on laughing at the Other. In a way, it would be inappropriate to blame de Middel for not being politically sensitive because her primal artistic interest is completely different. The artist was challenged by alternative ways of storytelling and by combining fiction with reality. She merged documents, articles, found images and her own staged photographs in order to create very dynamic and poetic piece of work that only vaguely considers more profound socio-political aspects of the story which is simply the approach that is not questionable in the world of art.

But there is certain kind of imbalance when the privileged ones mock the deprivileged ones. And typical reaction of audience when viewing The Afronauts is (silent) laugh. People laugh at the Other who failed. But I still believe that in order to see beyond yourself you have to posses at least a little bit of self-irony and self-reflection. First, you have to learn to laugh at yourself to be seen as humorous. But it seems that people in the West do not laugh at ourselves. We do not laugh at ourselves for firmly believing that Apollo 11 actually landed on the moon.

More pictures from the Afronauts series…

 

© Miha Colner, 15 June 2015