Home and hope

A quietly poetic collaboration corrects age-old myths of empire.

Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

Ordinary and African. An almost oxymoronic concept. Imagine something African daring to be ordinary. Dark, hot, dense Africa. The ultimate Western "other." Bosch in black face. The haunted wood of the Earth’s soul, where devils and demons danced to incinerating polyrhythms, while a parade of Christian civilization’s emissaries orchestrated the rape of its natural and human resources. To rationalize their actions they spouted heinous hokum and proclaimed their deeds heroic, moral, scientific, even holy.

The images in Another Africa, by photographer Robert Lyons, ain’t about that Africa. Not directly at least, although what you see is as much about what you don’t see as what you do.

Imagine pictures of Africans not as victims in some Old Testament-like pandemic catastrophe. Not in some irrational, sense-overwhelming slaughter, perpetuated by some megalomaniacal, postcolonial dictator’s mania to settle old tribal antagonisms and exterminate ethnic enemies – an opportunity unleashed by the departure of Africa’s imperialist role models.

Rather than those images, Lyons offers us a celebration of the variety of the ordinary and the personal. This is very much one man’s view of the world of which he is very much a living participant. On first viewing, his subjects seem random, but his theme is the unspoken calm, quiet and dignity of the survivors of Africa’s troubled past. People quietly but not desperately being themselves. What we see are not snapshots of exotics clicked off by a passing tourist. This is a portfolio of the profoundly familiar, witnessed by a homeboy. The cumulative work is an attempt by Lyons to soften the tone and dull the edge of a history of horrific, heart-of-darkness images.

There are, for instance, a variety of black men, women and children: hair weavers, bar patrons, tenders of babies, dancers, robed, gray-goateed elders. They are alone, in pairs and in groups, familial and social, formal and everyday. At water’s edge, in marketplaces, schoolrooms, dance clubs, photo studios, and silhouetted against an endless white sky.

One of Lyons’ major visual motifs is his capturing of subjects in close proximity to doorways. As if, symbolically, they are about to enter or exit, into or out of them. These portals suggest transportation, transferal and transition. A conveyance from one place, space or plane to another. A tall woman in white blouse and batik skirt, one black-braceleted arm angled on her hip, leans against a closed gray door. Behind her, another door, lockless, ajar, waits like a question. She, in private repose, contemplates an answer.

It must be noted that none of these photographs – by not picturing the horror we have been programmed to expect – is a denial of that unseen reality. Lyons’ pictures are not an attempt at escapism, but are an affirmation that another Africa, other than the salted, unhealed wound on the global psyche, exists.

The book’s tension, created by the absence of the usual clichéd African images in favor of those Lyons presents, is heightened by the compelling text of Chinua Achebe. In this one-two punch, good cop-bad cop duo, Achebe’s words speak as loudly as the pictures. The poems and essay keep our feet to the fire, lest we attempt to forget. Achebe’s old-school reality cuts to the nitty, the bone of this book’s mission.

Chinua Achebe is the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, probably the best-known fictional work of modern Africa. The novel relates the negative effects of European missionaries and colonizers on Nigeria in the late 19th century. His later work continues the story of Africans’ struggle to rid themselves of the negative aftereffects of European influence. Achebe, though his focus is a more direct awareness of the horrors of the past, nevertheless shares Lyons’ attempt at damage control, and the clearing up of the polluted depiction of Africa by non-African image producers.

In poems such as "Africa’s Tarnished Name," Achebe points out the irony of Africa’s physical closeness to Europe, yet the vast psychological distance between the two continents. His poems are as stark and hard-edged as songs of despair and of deliverance. They speak of "half a millennium of alien rape." Blame is evenly distributed among evil’s participants. He shines a revealing light on "The sinister grin of Africa’s idiot-kings who oversee in obscene palaces of gold/ The butchery of their own people."

A contrived difference of alien-ness, Achebe says, is what Africa represents in the European psyche. The slave trade and colonization necessitated the invention of an exacerbated difference between the continents and their inhabitants. In order to justify the injustices being perpetrated on Africa, European writers – in collusion with, and at the service of merchants, politicians and evangelists – had to devalue Africans as an immoral and therefore debauched mass, salvageable only through benevolent contact with the West.

The centuries-old literary tradition of degrading stereotypes and paternalistic munificence that grew out of that effort fueled the lasting, clichéd images of Africa and things African. Joseph Conrad, writer of Heart of Darkness, is particularly taken to task for synthesizing the erroneous notion of enlightened European consciousness encountering the natural savagery of Africa. It is this persistent and pervasive belief that Another Africa combats by image and word. "Africans ... " Achebe insists, "ask for one thing alone – to be seen for what they are: human beings."

Each of these artists positions himself at a place between then and there, the past and the future, a solidly based place of creative and emotional conflict. As with letters from home reminding of forgotten hope, their purpose is to purge and purify. Achebe and Lyons ask the question, what has a survivor to sing about? Lyons gives visions of respect for African dignity and individual humanity. Achebe says, "A dirge answering/ The gloom? No, I sing fearful songs/ of joy ... "

And the healing continues.