Gazing at a Distance?
Two exhibits at the same museum: one seeking to deconstruct the white Western gaze, the other perpetuating it.
I, a Lacanian subject of desire, return to C/O Berlin, the center of photography that recently reopened at Amerika Haus at the very nerve center of tourism and culture in the German capital. As someone engaged in a critical dialogue on sociopolitical issues of representation in globalized visual culture, I could hardly miss seeing this traveling exhibition. Its eloquent title, Distance and Desire: Encounter with the African Archive, announces its preconceived purpose upfront: asking questions as to the role of archives and the impact of the photographic image in the writing of history. The project was organized into three sections, beginning with photographs from the Walther Collection and juxtaposing images from historical archives of photos taken in southern and eastern Africa around the turn of the twentieth century with works by contemporary artists from African perspectives whose approaches seek to reinterpret the ethnographic and colonial archive. From the outset, the visitor is clued in: it is impossible to view these photographs without realizing the violent relations inherent in European colonialism in Africa, and equally impossible to detach them from the historical contexts in which they were produced. The displacement of these archives invites us to examine our own gaze with a certain critical distance in order to reflect upon the processes of identifying and constructing difference, especially racial and gendered difference. The project re-envisions the archive as the bearer of collective memory, restoring the agency and individuality of the subjects portrayed and thereby creating alternative narratives of history.