Research Paper: Dark Raptures: Colonial Enterprise as Reflected in Anthropological Photography and Ethnography

Pages: 10 (4474 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Anthropology  ·  Buy This Paper

Anthropological Photography in Africa

In what way does the academic discipline of anthropology partake of what Patricia Hayes describes as "emerging colonial photographic rituals marking subjugation and power"? (Hayes 141). In this paper, I will examine the work of two anthropologists who both did work in Africa, and whose work was published with extensive photographic documentation. The first is Isaac Schapera, one of the most reputable (and long-lived) academics to emerge from the Social Anthropology movement based in London. In 2009, Francoise Ugochukwu would still praise Schapera for his "open mind and interest in social change and cultural hybridity" while also claiming that Schapera's anthropological photographs displayed "a very personal bond between him and the Tswana, consisting of a mixture of trust, respect, and familiarity" (Ugochukwu 628-9). This would seem to indicate by the twenty-first century's standard of criticism for underlying assumptions in earlier anthropological work, Schapera nonetheless is considered by at least one African anthropologist as a model of empathetic impartiality, the sort of ideal disinterested interest that should be brought to anthropological field work. But I would like to compare Schapera and his photographs to the work of his rough contemporary, the comparatively unknown Felix Bryk. In particular, I would like to treat one work by Bryk as a sort of anthropological artifact in itself, to be subjected to critical examination. This is Bryk's 1944 English-language publication Dark Rapture: The Sex-Life of the African Negro. To bring the work of these two different anthropologists (both originally operating in Africa within the same basic time period) is intended not to belittle Schapera, but instead to contextualize him alongside a much more troubling counter-tradition within anthropology itself. I hope to demonstrate that, in certain crucial regards (most particularly with regards to sexuality), anthropology does indeed partake of certain aspects of the colonial discourse of which it should ostensibly be free.

In what way does anthropology reflect the biases of its time? One fascinating element of Isaac Shapera's late interviews with Adam Kuper is the revelation that academic politics among early twentieth-century anthropologists essentially mimicked the larger geopolitics of colonialism:

But that was typical of anthropology in those days. It was what you now call in English NIMBY: not in my back yard. Firth, I believe, would have liked to go to the Trobriands. Malinowski said no. That is anyway the gossip among friends. [The attitude was:] Because I've been there nobody else must go. (Schapera and Kuper 2002, 15)

Malinowski, in other words, had staked a territorial claim to the Trobriand Islanders. For someone else to go there, even to confirm Malinowski's basic observations, was considered bad form at the very least. However, it is worth approaching Schapera's discussion here with the sensitivity of an anthropologist. For a start, his description of territoriality is domesticated: his use of the term "NIMBY," which he indicates some cultural unfamiliarity with by noting that it is "what you now call in English," is somewhat inaccurate here. "NIMBY" usually refers to suburban residents who do not want a garbage dump or nuclear power plant built in their immediate vicinity -- it is not customarily applied to the sharp elbows of academics engaged in turf wars. Schapera is also careful to shade his account of a possible rivalry between Firth and Malinowski in doubt ("I believe," "gossip among friends") so as to not make anthropology seem unprofessional. But the simple fact is that this territoriality on the part of Europeans regarding far-flung countries has a more precise analogue in the actual colonial movement in the nineteenth century. Schapera might just as well compare the process of academic specialization here to the Berlin Conference of 1884, with Malinowski in the role of Otto von Bismarck. What is of course most strange about this is that it directly contradicts the largely scientistic approach that is generally claimed by anthropology: the idea that no-one might return to the Trobriand Islanders simply to confirm Malinowski's observations about them seems to contradict the most basic scientific principle of confirming observations through repeated approaches.

It might also be worth noting that this tendency in anthropology is persistent, and indeed some of the most memorable public disputes in the discipline (e.g., the posthumous attack by Derek Freedman on Margaret Mead's ethnographic work in Samoa) essentially hinged on the question of whether a solitary anthropological observer was sufficient to get accurate data. Insofar as anthropologists fill a cultural niche as an actor or agent in the production of knowledge about the "Other," this questionable assumption from the early years of the discipline -- namely that Bronislaw Malinowski could be relied upon to be a one-man scientific method, and that his work in the Trobriand Islands should not be infringed upon by permitting Firth to research in the same place -- raises a large troubling question about the adoption of scientism by anthropologists tout court. From the vantage of the early twenty-first century, we can now see that many figures emerging from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who presented their work under the mantle of "science" were really engaged in nothing of the sort: Sigmund Freud provides perhaps the most notorious example. To a certain degree, the pretense of scientism would appear to serve the function of allowing otherwise dangerous or subversive knowledge about the "Other" to enter the hegemonic culture within a sort of cordon sanitaire, as it were. Freud's discussions of sexuality -- however wildly speculative and unfounded on any empirical evidence they may seem to us now -- were able to alter public discourse simply by using the mantle of science to permit Western cultures to discuss matters that had previously been taboo.

This process is interesting to consider when we turn to the anthropological and photographic work of those two very different ethnographers, Isaac Schapera and Felix Bryk. Although this might seem to be an unusual linkage -- as Schapera's work is still considered academically valid, and Bryk's is, in Gulizia's words, "almost completely forgotten" (and might be regarded as little more than pornography if it were known) -- there is interesting precedent for this connection between the two (Gulizia 2013). Both Felix Bryk and Isaac Schapera are cited as authorities on the anthropology of sex within the famous "Kinsey Report," Alfred C. Kinsey's large scale American survey on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, first published in 1948. Indeed just as Isaac Schapera's Married Life in an African Tribe is cited several times in the Kinsey report, so is Felix Bryk's Dark Rapture (Kinsey 769). I will return to this suggestive connection in due course, but at the very least it may indicate that the standard of review for anthropological sexology was not precisely rigorous in the middle of the twentieth century, as Bryk had no academic background within anthropology. Instead, Felix Bryk was (like Alfred C. Kinsey himself) originally trained as an entomologist. (Bryk was a lepidopterist specializing in the subfamily Parnassinae, while Kinsey studied gall wasps.) Kreinik describes Bryk as an "entomologist and ethnographer" who also overlapped with the Weimar artistic world through the "Romanisches Cafe in Berlin," and in particular Kreinik describes Bryk's collaborative friendship with the painter Christian Schad. Bryk had apparently modeled for several of Schad's paintings (posing for the patient being operated on in Schad's "Appendectomy in Geneva"), and according to Kreinik "Schad was deeply interested in Bryk's work which involved a trip to Africa during the 1920s" (Kreinik 67). And like Isaac Schapera, who would turn later in his career to editing historically-important works by the Africa-based missionary David Livingstone, Felix Bryk had a substantial antiquarian interest in the legendary Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, and (in Gulizia's words) "curated Linnaeus's manuscripts" about an unpublished naturalistic expedition (Gulizia 2013). Indeed Gulizia finds the origins of Bryk's African ethnographic expedition as based solely on the fact that "Bryk firmly believed…Linnaeus was a sexualist" (Gulizia 2013). And therefore Bryk's ethnographic survey of African sexual practices was supposedly intended as an extension of his original entomological researches, combined with the artistic ferment of Weimar Germany.

The photographs that accompany the English-language publication of Dark Rapture, however, were not taken by Bryk himself. Instead, these were taken by another interesting fringe figure -- indicating a substantial amateur presence in supposed anthropological study in the earlier half of the twentieth century -- the German film actress Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk. With her husband Hans Schomburgk, Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk would make a number of what they described as "ethnodramas" -- that is, dramatic narrative films that were shot on location in Africa. Thus within the German colonial holding of Togoland -- i.e., present-day Ghana -- Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk would star in her husband's 1913 film Weisse Gottin der Wangora, "The White Goddesss of the Wangora" presumably a reference to the Soninke Wangara, whose Mande-speaking descendants were still located in Ghana (Gehrts 29). For an example of the sort of "Africa" that was constructed in these "ethnodramas" we may examine some of the photographs included by the actress in her memoir of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Dark Raptures: Colonial Enterprise as Reflected in Anthropological Photography and Ethnography.  (2014, May 5).  Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/dark-raptures-colonial-enterprise/8749248

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"Dark Raptures: Colonial Enterprise as Reflected in Anthropological Photography and Ethnography."  5 May 2014.  Web.  21 May 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/dark-raptures-colonial-enterprise/8749248>.

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"Dark Raptures: Colonial Enterprise as Reflected in Anthropological Photography and Ethnography."  Essaytown.com.  May 5, 2014.  Accessed May 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/dark-raptures-colonial-enterprise/8749248.