...signifying is a "technique of indirect argument or persuasion," "a language of implication," "to imply, goad, beg, boast, by indirect verbal or gestural means." "...signifying... the language of trickery."
--Henry Louis Gates quoting Roger D. Abrahams in "The 'Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey."
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I didn't plan to be the last person in the photo-blogosphere to write about Cristina de Middel's recent book, The Afronauts. I wanted to be the first. After all, it's about Africa (sorta) -- a phantasmagorical recreation of the Zambian space program of the 1960s. And Africa is my beat. One of them, anyway.
Besides, I was lucky enough to spend time hanging out with Cristina, last June, at Look3, the Festival of the Photograph and figured that the book would be much like its author -- smart, funny, and provocative. Should have been easy to write about. It wasn't. At least, not for me.
Yesterday, The Afronauts won the International Center of Photography's 2013 Infinity Award for Publication (a very big deal). I took the opportunity to re-read something Cristina said about the work to my friend and fellow blogger Pete Brook, and I finally got it. The Afronauts is signifyin'.
(Before we go any further, check out the wonderful video about the book, above.)
Ok. You're back.
Cristina said that she was signifying? Well, not precisely. But darned close. She told Pete that
The images are beautiful and the story is pleasant at a first level, but it is built on the fact that nobody believes that Africa will ever reach the moon. It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices. It's just like saying strong words with a beautiful smile.
The Afronauts, in other words, is about us -- we non-Africans -- and the stereotypes and prejudices about Africa that we carry around in our heads. It's about challenging those stereotypes and beliefs, on the sly, with humor, and with a sleight of hand.
I once heard someone say that oppression is not a competitive sport, so I won't tell you that Africa is the most stereotyped continent on Earth. But it's surely one of the most, and Africans are among the most stereotyped people. Among the most pervasive stereotypes are those that suggest that Africans are innately backward people who can't cope with the challenges of the modern world.
But how exactly do you go about changing prejudices and misconceptions that are so widespread? One strategy is to replace mistaken ideas and images with more accurate ones. Nothing wrong with that. If you want people to believe that Africa is more than mud huts and tribal masks, you've got to show them something else -- say, creative modern Africans at work and at play.
Stuart Hall, one of the best known writers on the question, suggests another approach. We should look for ways, he says, "to occupy the very terrain which has been saturated by fixed and closed... stereotypes and turn the stereotypes... against themselves...."
Hall's advice is sound but superfluous for anyone who has a passing familiarity with Louis Armstrong and Flavor Flav or with Richard Pryor and Tracy Morgan. All were and are masters of the African-American art of signifying. It's an art form that has roots as deep as the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century. As Amiri Baraka wrote fifty years ago,
The black minstrel shows were... what might be called parodies, or exaggerations, of certain aspects of Negro life in America. But in sense the colored minstrel was poking fun himself, and in another and probably more profound sense he was poking fun at the white man.
It seems to me that this is Cristina's strategy as well. She takes what seems to be a playful look at the silly idea that Africans can build rockets and lures her readers into wondering why the idea seems so absurd.
All strategies have their risks. Some people undoubtedly looked at Louis Armstrong and saw nothing but a confirmation of their prejudices. Many more did not, as his astonishing career and continuing legacy confirm.
I imagine that The Afronauts will have similar effect. Some people will embrace the stereotype. Others -- many others, I hope -- will find themselves questioning it.
The Afronauts is signifying of the highest order and a virtuoso display of trickeration.
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