Another photographer turns up at another recently manufactured ‘traditional’ culture, and produces yet another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.
I don’t have time to go into extreme details, but let me be succinct. Both ‘the past and present’ that the writer / magazine purport to offer here, are so childishly and ridiculously presented that you would think that the past, and the present that is being shown in these pictures had nothing to do with:
A) The history of colonial machinations, invasions and capture that is the history of a besieged, brutalised and hounded community that has lived at least the last 250 years as victims of a battle for control of this land, its resources and labouring lives by at least four major European colonial powers (British, German, Russian and Australian).
“The past…” as shown in this pictures–these ‘costumes’ that have been placed onto these bodies who otherwise return to their shacks, their slums, their poverty and their deprivation, are entirely constructed by colonial interests. In fact, the writer unthinkingly reveals the provenance of this occasion–the Goroko Show. The Goroko Show was something manufactured by the Austrialian district officers sometime in the 1950s! It is a modern event. It is a tourist gathering, now a tourist performance, and highly influenced by the play of money, sponsors, and the papuan’s need to find ways of making money.
For goodness sake man! They are using white masking fluid, sold at stationery stores, to create the ‘face paint’ – does that not say anything to you?
In his Afterword to George Stockings book “Colonial Situations!, Talal Asad reminds us that “…in a world subjected for centuries to European capitalism and imperialism…assumptions about cultural continuity, autonomy and authenticity must be questioned. Much of what appears ancient, integrated, and in need of preservation against the disruptive impact of modern social change is itself recently invented” [Colonial Situations, 1991:316]. In the same volume, George Stockhing’s essay “Maclay, Kubary, Malinowsky” reminds us of the “Great Game” of colonial interests that tore through Papua New Guinea–Port Moresby is named after a Captain John Moresby who set up the first mission in the area in around 1872. Australian’s were already marauding for gold in these hills. The British wanted the east. The Germans was sniffing about, and anthropologists were already documenting “the terribly pernicious consequences for the black population of their encounter with European colonisation” [Colonial Situations, 1991:20]. Forced labour was the norm in the area, with anthropologists such as Kubary running plantations themselves! This history of the colonial encounter, the impact of the rape of the land for resources, timber, labour, cannot be under-estimated. Nothing that exists in the country today can be shown to be ‘traditional’ not just because of the terrifying dislocations, destruction, displacements, devastation and denigration undergone by the local populations of these islands, but also because of the known nature of colonial construction of the ‘the noble savage’ and what the European understood to be ‘traditional’, or ‘representative’ or ‘native’.
2) The brutal slaughters, massacres, genocides, displacements, and destruction of the entire fabric of anything that can be called ‘traditional’ by American imperial and mining interests, and Indonesian military interests. Indonesia colonised with a brutality that killed over 40,000 people. Its accomplice in this madness was no other than the American Freeport McMoran mining company. Once Freeport was established–some time in 1967, the local population “…endured detention without trial, torture, forced resettlement, disappearances, the plunder of their mineral wealth, and the uncompensated degradation of their environment” [Nixon, Slow Violence & The Environmentalism of the Poor:118]. And this process continues–the mining continues, the violence used to ensure that it does, continues, and so does the resistance “Armed separatists have occupied five villages in Indonesia’s Papua province, threatening to disrupt Freeport-McMoRan Inc’s giant Grasberg copper mine, which has already been hit this year by labour unrest and a dispute over operating rights” [Reuters, Novemer 2017].
I can write more. Lots more. But why must I do so? Why can a photographer get away with just pretty aesthetics, and the most ignorant and nonsensical set of captions? Why can a writer erasure 200 years of colonial brutalisation, rape and pillage, and American collusion and support for this madness, and produce a piece of historical summary that would see a college undergraduate given a failing grade? How can someone, standing and watching the modern political struggles, the modern political and social deprivations, poverty, misery, anger, brutality of the people who live there and claim that their headdress “…is linked to an ancient way of life.”? Who told him that? How, by attending a purely touristic event, a theatrical performance at par with something you could see at Disney World, an event exploited to hide the actual brutalisation under which these communities have and continue to suffer, an event that is ‘orchestrated’ and at the behest of money, and perhaps even in desperation to ‘impress’ the tourist and foreigners, new ‘traditions’ and new ‘more elaborate’ headdresses and costumes are invented, do you imagine you are seeing ‘tradition’? As I once mentioned to a friend in a different context: today, if the Masai are jumping, they are jumping for food, not for ‘tradition’, because we have left them nothing else.
Much like the traders in African masks outside the MOMA in New York, who carefully file away the signatures of the living, modern sculpture artists who make those masks because the ‘tourists’ want masks that look ‘ancient’ and from ‘antiquity’, these events have to be experienced with great scepticism [see Diawara’s ‘In Search of Africa’ if you want to know more, or Stoller’s ‘Money Has No Smell’]
To arrive at ‘an event’ orchestrated for our racist consumption, to then construct a hideous piece of photography that panders to a past that traps the people in their past, and panders to our voyeurism that traps them in their barbarism–this is the rhythm of this piece: headmen with head gear, and gangsters with guns and missing body parts–is to do terrible and racist violence to a people yet again. A colonial violence in all its perfection in fact–to aesthetically send them back out of modernity, to a ‘true self’ that is outside of time, outside of the now even as the photographer makes photos of them, talks to them in the now, and to aesthetically condemn them to madness and barbarism, but focusing on the ‘gangsters’, yet again discarding them from ‘modernity’ where we should find ‘the rule of law’.
It is tradition or madness. There is nothing in between. They were either ‘the noble savage’ or just crazy!
But the most egregious sin is the erasure–to erase the presence and impact of the violence of the state, of the imperial overlord and of the corporation. that most mad of violent presence–one that has killed hundreds of thousands, one where a military junta, funded and aided by the USA, to ‘open markets’ for American mining interests, simply ripped through life and history.
No wonder the average American remains blind, deaf and dumb. Blind to the suffering his way of life causes, deaf to the protests and resistance of those trying to save themselves and their families, and dumb (illiterate) to actual lived histories that she never gets to know about in his finest of schools.
I guess the Smithsonian will do just fine then. Nice lighting arrangement. Must check the EXIF files. To hell with the ‘real’, lets just focus on ‘the representation’.