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Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the 'Native' and the Making of European Identities. - Review - book review

Australian Journal of Anthropology, The, April, 2001 by Jane Lydon

Anne Maxwell. Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the 'Native' and the Making of European Identities. London and New York: Leicester University Press, 1999. 224pp., 50 illustrs., index, bibliog. [pound]45 (Hc.), ISBN 0-71850-142-X.

With the critique of colonialism represented by the work of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Ann Stoler and others, the mutual constitution of self and other in colonial discourse has become a familiar theme. Tracing the ways that colonial powers, in creating representations of indigenous peoples, thereby define themselves, has shown how coloniser and colonised are engaged, not separate and opposed, and how the 'periphery' has shaped 'metropolitan' identity and knowledge. Anne Maxwell's examination of a body of images produced between 1850 and 1915--the 'live displays' of so-called 'primitive peoples' staged at Great Exhibitions in England and France and the heterogenous range of photographs produced by colonial powers-is similarly structured by this relationship, her aim being to examine the racism which 'inflicted physical and psychological injuries' on their subjects, but which also contributed to the formation of European identities and 'white hegemony'.

The strength of such a wide-ranging study lies in its wealth of rich material, which Maxwell explores through numerous case studies and examples (including 55 plates), and I found her account of parallel (or uneven) developments across the globe valuable in allowing broad patterns to emerge. It is difficult, however, to achieve this sweep except at the expense of detail and complexity. In her attempt to demonstrate the inequalities of imperialism, Maxwell's readings are too often characterised by a determinist conception of colonial relations, which assume a monolithic, universally evil cast, while her emphasis on 'racism' as explanation for attitudes and events, assessed by today's moral standards (as for example in her observations about T.H.Huxley, p.42) tends to displace historically nuanced analysis of contemporary attitudes, which might reveal a more ambivalent relationship between colonisers and colonised.

Her account begins by examining the relationship between exhibitionary displays of live peoples and contemporary racial theory: for example a survey of the increasingly spectacular displays held in the Jardin d'Acclimation in the 1 880s shows how they set the pattern for such displays throughout the 'civilised' world, invoking the scientific, philosophical and moral discourses of imperialism. The following chapter surveys photographs of non-European peoples, first produced by travellers and particularly by early anthropologists, concerned to record human difference in physical, observable terms-for example, using the anthropometric methods devised by Huxley and Lamprey. She briefly considers the work of several prominent photographers, such as Prince Roland Bonaparte, whose photo of Native American 'Standing Bear', shown casting 'a bemused look in the direction of the photographer', is interpreted as evidence for a mutually sympathetic relationship: 'By exposing himself to the scrutiny of the 'other', Bonapa rte was arguably opening up a space for reciprocity' (p.45). Drawing here upon the work of film theorist Ann Kaplan, Maxwell employs the concept of 'the look', connoting 'a process, a relation'; an image whose subject stares back at the photographer is 'empowering to the colonized because it awards them subjectivity and simultaneously causes white subjectivity to be interrogated.' (p.13)

For those of us seeking to recover Indigenous subjectivity in the past, signs of rebellion or simply another agenda at work in these overwhelmingly exploitative images are eagerly sought. But can we apply Kaplan's notion of a 'looking relation', developed with respect to the work of current feminist film-makers such as Tracy Moffatt or Trinh T. Minh-ha, to nineteenth century colonial photography? In this context, I find the argument that the 'returned gaze' empowered the subject, interpellated the white viewer or served as an effective vehicle for resistance, questionable. Furthermore, Maxwell's next example, Bonaparte's phot ograph of the Aboriginal people 'Billy, Jenny and Little Toby', toured by the showman Cunningham in the 1880s, and complicit with their callous treatment, shows all three gazing steadily (unhappily, angrily, despairingly?) at the camera (plate 6). There is not much empowerment here. 'Looking relations' are determined by historically contingent cultural context, and formal pictorial elements cannot be interpreted mechanically without addressing the specific circumstances of the photograph's production.

The next four chapters address a range of developing representational strategies in the settler colonies of North America, Australasia and the Pacific. Maxwell describes American exhibitions such as the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893, in which the shining 'White City's' vision of a cultured spacious future formed a stark contrast to the disordered 'honkytonk' atmosphere of the 'Midway', or amusement zone, where colonised peoples were displayed. She moves on to examine American photography's more heterogenous range of interests, from Agassiz' 1850s slave records, designed to support the theory of polygenesis, through the publication of 'Midway Types' accompanying the 1893 Chicago exhibition, which justified colonisation by affirming white superiority, to the 'salvage ethnography' of Edward Curtis between 1907 and 1930, in recording the vanishing race' of Native Americans.

In contrast to the aggressive capitalism of North America, the next chapter shows how the enthusiasm for exhibitions in both Australia and New Zealand was an assertion of a modernity from which indigenous people were excluded by being assigned to the past. However, despite Maxwell's obvious wish to recover indigenous subjectivity, we are left wondering about the indigenous subjects' views--brutal coercion clearly does not account for every image. In examining a tableau of seven Maori at the Christchurch exhibition of 1906-07, dressed in traditional clothes (plate 30), she notes that the indigenous figures in this 'authentic' European scene were in fact prominent individuals who had successfully engaged with European culture--such as Maggie Papakura, 'about to depart for England, where she was to marry an earl and study anthropology at Oxford', or Te Rangihiroa (Dr Peter Buck), 'already the Medical Officer of Maori Health, [who] was shortly to enter parliament as member for Northern Maori and would go on to b ecome a professor of anthropology at Yale University' (p. 138). But then surely the next question is--why did these elite and sophisticated people, presumably having a well-developed understanding of white representational practices, participate in producing this image? What was in it for them?

On empirical grounds I also had difficulty in accepting Maxwell's account of Charles Walter's 1860s photographs of Victorian Aboriginal people, arguing for Walter's 'propensity for sexual voyeurism', and claiming that he 'produced a series of photographs showing individual Aboriginal women sitting and standing in classical poses ... his realistic style and his decision to have them pose bare-breasted led the public to see these images as semi-pornographic.' (p. 148) Unfortunately, during my own research into Walter's work and in subsequent enquiries I have been unable to find any such images of Aboriginal women (Maxwell does not cite the source of these images). I do not believe they exist, and Maxwell must have misattributed the photographs she has in mind. At this time Aboriginal station residents, where Christianity had been adopted by most and European notions of dress by all, would not have taken their clothes off for photographers--in fact, around this time Robert Brough Smyth rejected T. H. Huxley's r equest for anthropometric data from Victoria on this basis.

Maxwell's concluding chapters examine two 'dissident' photographers: Thomas Andrew, working in Samoa in the 1890s, and Margaret Matilda White's portraits of east Coast Maori tribes, 'living in two worlds' (p. 183), able to adopt pakeha culture without relinquishing their own. Her final chapter examines how under threat of American annexation (which finally occurred in 1898), photographic portraits of the Hawai'ian royal family, stressing their nobility in the style of the European monarchy, were actively deployed to 'drum up support for Hawai'i's independence' (p. 193). The detailed and contextualised studies comprising this concluding section send a subversive shudder backwards through the book, effectively destabilising the crude structural relationship between colonisers and colonised built up by the earlier chapters, asking us to look again at the multiple and contradictory roles visual imagery played in colonial discourse.

source: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2472/is_1_12/ai_72299836

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