Walk Like a Parisian

11 Sep

For a recent photo competition I recently threw in some images of an African woman interacting with World War II memorabilia at a War Museum near Mangaung (Bloemfontein) South Africa. It was total bliss watching her get on top of the tanks, built for war decades before she was born, and totally doing her own thing while the rest of our African tour group stood by incredulously looking on. It was a detached experience looking at the exhibits that we really had no relationship with other than a collective colonial history; maybe we knew someone who knew of someone who had heard that their grandfather had dug trenches for the allies in North Africa or Italy during that war. My great grandfather may very well have sent men to that very same war, but it still somehow wasn’t my history.

At the prize giving ceremony for the awards, I fell into conversation with one of the judges of the competition, focusing on a photo of a woman walking into the horizon along a sandy road. The woman was balancing a load on her head; her shadow stuck out at a 90 degree angle and was chopped by the portrait framing of the image. Her frozen step towards the horizon was purposeful, and her destination had blurred into a vanishing point as the road merged with the skyline. Actually an arresting image more for the technique and jarring framing that sliced off the woman’s shadow, rather than then subject matter… a woman walking somewhere with a load on her head.

One of the competition’s judges, a French national who had been living and working in Africa for a number of years, was adamant that the walk was different; it was “Parisian” even because it was purposeful and “sophisticated” as well; it looked like the woman wanted to get somewhere… According to this judge, “Women here don’t walk like that. Most women in West Africa drag their feet when they walk.” That was a total W-T-F!? I broke it down to the effect that most people who grew up in Botswana have an experience of carrying something on their heads, even if it meant we only saw someone else do it. The back is usually straight and the walk balanced; it just has to be otherwise the load would topple. In Western Europe when girls enter the modelling fraternity or are at some fancy school they are taught this walk by balancing a book on their heads. So for us Africans it is a daily thing but in other places it is a skill which quite literally has to be taught.

The competition judge then tried to return to the image to discuss the photo out of context, which then led me to start on that type of stereotypical thinking. The context being that from a Western Europe point of view, any cultural thing that doesn’t come from there is all filed under one banner, ethnographic; be it from China, South America or Africa. (Dictionary.com defines ethnographic as a noun – A branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures. At no time does the definition say “non-European cultures” or some such nonsense) She was saved by some tactless someone who swept her off as I was espousing on exactly what was wrong with that type of thinking that wants to perpetuate a stereotype about Africa in general, even through art. Here one foot fall frozen in time was being misused as evidence to try and say the Africans are finally learning how to walk like Parisians.

I left.

Pic – http://liftlab.com

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