Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

The Living Dead — An Independence Framework

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By Shane Chalmers*

Centre for International Governance & Justice, RegNet, ANU

‘Untitled, 1960’ (Photograph: Joseph Moise Agbodjélou, published by The Guardian)

‘Untitled, 1960’ (Photograph: Joseph Moise Agbodjélou, published by The Guardian)

This studio portrait was taken in 1960 by the Beninese photographer Joseph Moise Agbodjélou, within months of Benin gaining independence from France. What is remarkable about the photograph is its critical-representational style, that is, its self-conscious use of the representational framework of the art form to create the art work.

The art form is studio photography, which in its traditional mode was developed to create an idealised image. The result is supposed to be a representation, of the family for instance, that one can hang in the entrance of the home as a reminder of its real nature; thus the reality of family life is the one on display in the photograph and not the dysfunctional one on display in everyday life.[1] In this way, the traditional mode of studio photography uses the representational framework uncritically to create a fantasy portrayed as reality. This both substitutes for the actual dysfunction and authorises its continuation, by making it present in a way that the contradiction can be overlooked.[2]

By contrast, the representational style used in this photograph is a critique of this traditional mode of studio portraiture performed from within the mode of studio portraiture. The photograph presents a body under a vestment, in keeping with the traditional mode of studio portraiture. By ‘vestment’ I mean, most broadly, a ‘covering’, which includes not only the clothing but also the jewellery and drape seen in the photograph. More narrowly, however, I also mean ‘clothing’ ‘worn by the priest or priests at the celebration of the Eucharist’.[3] This points to the double effect of a vestment, covering a body and thereby making it sacred, but in so doing, reinforcing the unsacred quality of the unvested body. This also points to a third meaning of vestment: ‘A right or privilege with which a person or body is invested or endowed’.[4] Again, it is the vestment that makes the body a rightful subject; but for the act of vestiture, the body would remain a mere object. Thus the young woman is presented in the fashion of a ‘civilised subject’, which, in the attempt to dignify her by endowing her in a rightful way, also does the opposite, stripping her body of its own dignity. The result would be the equation of a rightful subject with a rightly invested body.

That is the first or ‘initial’ effect of the photograph: to present the body as an object that is the play-thing of the representational framework. The young woman might be mistaken for a doll in a doll-house, or a mannequin in a shop-front display. And yet, unlike the traditional studio portrait, which is successful to the extent it effectively overlays the representational framework on its object, this photograph works against a merger of body and vestment and is effective to the extent it calls this unity into question. This is the second or ‘other’ effect, which becomes the primary effect the more one looks at the photograph: body and vestment, far from merging, appear in stark separation. The contradiction between body and vestment can be seen in the ill-fitting underwear that covers the young woman’s body proprietorially. It can be seen in the young woman’s eyes, which, instead of looking into the camera, thereby seducing the viewer into the portrait’s reality – as is the desired effect of traditional studio portraits – are looking askance, directing the viewer outside the scene, thereby disrupting the illusion that reality is contained within its framework. Above all, the contradiction is seen in the un-cropped framing of the portrait, which shows a faded and torn rendition of European Civilisation draped tackily over a richly-textured place.

Thus in a way that cannot now be overlooked, the photograph shows the fantastical and violent realism of a representational framework that would treat her body as its play-thing. The portrait is concerned with the woman as a living subject – with her dignity as a self-possessed young woman – rendered a mere object through the attempt to dignify her by super-imposing upon her the vestment of Civilised Europe. At the same time, the portrait is allegorical, presenting a critique of the colonial attempt to render Benin ‘civilised’. By critically highlighting the separation – indeed the independence – of the young woman’s body from its vestment, the photograph also effectively portrays the divestment of French colonialism from the body of Benin.

As an art work, the photograph thus establishes the conditions of emancipation by critiquing a framework that sought to subsume the people and country of Benin within its realism. But this is not merely an act of negation. It is also a record of history that is actively making history. After all, the art form is studio portraiture. As a studio portrait, the photograph substitutes in the place of a French-colonial framework a framework of independence, and authorises the independence framework through the critical representation of the colonial one. In the act of critiquing the reality of a representational framework, it is presenting an alternative reality in its place, and using the critique to authorise that alternative.

That was Benin in 1960, the year of Independence. Fifty years later, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou – who inherited his father’s photography studio as his generation inherited Benin – created the portrait of a young man reproduced below. In the traditional mode of studio portraiture, this photograph also presents a body under a vestment, but like the portrait of the young woman, it also works against a merger of body and vestment. What makes this photograph so different from the photograph of the young woman, however, is how it treats the relation of body and vestment. The portrait of the young woman critiques the treatment of the body as an object that is the play-thing of a representational framework and thereby establishes the body as subject. In a reversal of this, the portrait of the young man establishes the body as subject by presenting the representational framework as its play-thing.

‘Untitled, 2010’ (Photograph: Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, published by Jack Bell Gallery: )

‘Untitled, 2010’ (Photograph: Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, published by Jack Bell Gallery)

The young man appears dynamic and self-possessed, his gaze seducing the viewer into his reality – modern, vibrant, youthful. He smiles coolly as he poses for the photo. With cheeky defiance he leans against the wooden chair that the studio photographer presumably placed there for him to sit on. He holds up in mock appreciation the flowers that the studio photographer also presumably placed on the ground beside the chair (note that this is how the flowers appear in the portrait of the young woman).

At the same time, this is not a traditional studio portrait. The effect is not to merge body and vestment in the production of a fantasy that substitutes for and enables the perpetuation of a dysfunctional actuality. Like the portrait of the young woman, this photograph calls such unity into question. The colourfully patterned cloth that covers both body and place, combined with the silver aviator glasses that cover the young man’s eyes, highlight the fantastical nature of the representational framework. And like the portrait of the young woman, the effect is to establish the body as subject precisely by emphasising its separation from the representational framework.

There is an important difference, however, between this portrait and the one of the young woman. The portrait of the young woman presents the separation of body and vestment in a way that records the moment of independence and authorises that independence as a possible alternative framework – but the independence framework remains negative. Created in 1960, its effect is critique, presenting the possibility of an other future without presenting that future. Fifty years and a generation later, the portrait of the young man provides an answer, presenting a future in which the body is realising its own subjectivity. But it also remains critical: the answer is no more the realisation of an authentic subject than it is the presentation of an authentic reality. The photograph neither presents the body as subject in any absolute way – the body is still under a vestment – nor does it present a realistic reality – the vestment remains a fantastical representational framework.

In sum, whereas the portrait of the young woman uses the art form of studio portraiture to critique a colonial framework and thereby record and authorise the possibility of an independence framework, the portrait of the young man uses the same art form to show the critical possibilities of that independence framework. This is what I mean by ‘living dead’. Presenting the body as subject playing with its independence, the portrait is both positive and negative: positive in that it presents the body as a character full of life; negative in that it neither allows that identity to dominate the body (the body plays with the identity) nor allows the viewer to believe that the portrait is simply real. This is not some pure life free of all mediating frameworks, but a life that plays with the identity that frames it.

* This post draws on material in Shane’s PhD thesis and in a forthcoming article titled, ‘Civil Death in the Dominion of Freedom: Liberia and the Logic of Capital’ .

[1] There is an episode of The Simpsons where the Simpson family are having their Christmas photograph taken in a studio at the local mall. At the moment the photograph is taken, Bart is yanked out of the frame by a security guard who had previously caught him shoplifting. Precisely as an accurate portrayal of the dysfunctional Simpson family, this portrait could not be hung on the wall. The episode ends with Bart re-taking his portrait, which is then hung over top of the dysfunctional one. See The Simpsons, Series 7, Episode 11, ‘Marge be Not Proud’ (17 December 1995).

[2] On the effect of representation as both ‘substitution’ and ‘authorisation’, see Louis Marin, Portrait of the King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 5-6.

[3] See ‘vestment, n.1’, OED Online, September 2015.

[4] See ‘vestment, n.2’, OED Online, September 2015.

One thought on “The Living Dead — An Independence Framework

  1. thanks Shane for this very rich and revealing reading of these remarkable portraits

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