Through a Glass Darkly: Colonial Views of Africa

On the last Saturday of June, two dozen Mandela Washington Young African Leader fellowship recipients came to The Wolfsonian–Florida International University for a guided tour of the galleries and a presentation of primary source materials conducted by associate librarian Dr. Nicolae Harsanyi in our rare book and special collections library. The group included persons from nineteen African nations including: Ethiopia, Cameroon, the United Republic of Tanzania, Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Malawi, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Namibia, Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, and Zambia.

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The Wolfsonian’s collection focuses primarily on the period 1850 to 1950, a time when much of the African continent was under European hegemonic control. Consequently, most of our holdings of Africa and Africans present the regions and peoples through the distorted prism and perspective of colonialism and tourism. The visitors had the opportunity to see how European “explorers” and imperialists viewed the continent and represented it in colonial expositions.

The Wolfsonian possesses considerable propaganda relating to Italian and German colonial ventures in Africa. The Italian colonization of Eritrea and Ethiopia are well documented in the library collection, with numerous rare books, periodicals, and ephemera dealing with the First (1895–1896) and Second (1935–1939) Italo-Ethiopian wars.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Most of the materials laid out for our guests were produced by the Italian Fascist regime to “educate” the population about the region, to justify the invasion in 1935, and to promote patriotic pride in the establishment of the Italian Empire.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Aside from overtly “heroic” and “romanticized” depictions of Italians overcoming retreating Ethiopian warriors, most of the publications designed for home consumption tended to focus on women and children to make light of combat and to insinuate that most of the native people welcomed Italian intervention and colonial rule.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Steve Heller

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

The library does have some anti-Italian propaganda related to the Second Italo-Ethiopian war as well, including a number of issues of Akbaba, a Turkish publication with covers highly critical of Mussolini and the Italian invasion.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. promised gift

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Carl Weller published a portfolio of 48 color photographic illustrations of Germany’s colonial possessions in Africa.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After coming to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists began publishing a flurry of books and pamphlets designed to create nostalgia for and indignation over the African colonies lost by Germany after the First World War. The Kraft durch Freude (or, “Strength through Joy”) leisure program was established by the Nazis as a means of popularizing their National Socialist agenda and elevating the German government to become the largest tourism operator in the world. The KdF provided class-free, subsidized cruises for Germans as a means of stimulating the economy, promoting German-flag shipping, and encouraging trips, especially to former colonies in Africa.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Other European colonial powers also promoted travel to their respective colonies in Africa.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

While touring the galleries, the visitors had the opportunity to see art objects such as La Barre à Mine (Mining Bar), a statue created by Arthur Dupagne for the Belgian Congo Pavilion at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques, in Paris. While the painted plaster statue depicts a well-proportioned, muscular African male using a crowbar to break rock, it implies that Belgians would have to supply the brain power.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Printed materials from various world’s fairs and colonial expositions in Europe demonstrate how even architecture was used for propaganda purposes. Parisian architects erected African vernacular structures as pavilions, giving them a modern twist.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. loan

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. promised gift

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchased with funds donated by Vicki Gold Levi

Postcards and children’s coloring books were often distributed at expositions to “educate” and excite interest in African colonies among adult and younger fair visitors.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. promised gift

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

At the 1935 international exposition in Belgium, architectural planners deliberately sited and juxtaposed impressive modernist structures next to simple grass and palm thatch huts and “human zoos” to remind visitors of the contrast between “civilized” and “savage” peoples.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The interiors of these colonial pavilions reinforced the message of the exteriors with displays that implied that educational, religious, and humanitarian missions outweighed economic motives.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In spite of the obvious biases and ethnocentricities inherent in the European-produced material about Africa, they are not without historical value. The reader can read diaries, journals, and peruse collecting cards as well as sketch and scrapbooks to catch a glimpse of “authentic” African dress and customs in the artwork and photographs that grace their pages.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

 

 

~ by "The Chief" on July 26, 2018.

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