Echoes and Agreements

Echi and Accordi

August 20, 2020 By: Theophilus Marboah

Born and raised in Verona by Ghanaian parents, I’m a child of the diaspora and in everyday life, I experience the duality of “both/and”—Ghanaian and Italian, African and European. Living in a diasporic context, my origins and my blackness continually stimulate me to search for a language that describes my experience. A language that I find in art.”

In my digital series, ‘Echoes and Agreements’, I juxtapose archival images and artworks from Africa and its diaspora with works from the European art canon. Each diptych creates an inter/intra-dialogue that stimulates new ways to make sense of black images and images of blackness.

I was invited by ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA to take over their Instagram account. Below is a summary of the images and captions shared during the takeover in July.

 

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"What we call originality is little more than the fine blending of influences."
–Teju Cole


Left Image: 'Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn', ca. 1505-06, Raphael
Right Image: 'A Young Kenyan Woman Holds Her Pet Dik-Dik', 1909, Underwood and Underwood

Describing a photograph taken in Berlin, Teju Cole considers the arrangement of bodies in space. “A moment later, the man by the trees has moved on,” Cole writes. “He has not noticed his echo behind him, and the man who echoes him has not noticed him.”

The two men are separated from each other by a distance in time and space. But Cole’s camera records their correspondences. The text continues; “There are thousands of such echoes and agreements every minute. Almost all go unseen, and almost none are recorded, unless photography intervenes.”

Borrowing Cole’s thought, I wanted to register some echoes and agreements. The visual rhymes that can be found in the great archive of photography and art history. In this research, I paired those images that reflect my experience as a diasporic subject, a Ghanian born and raised in Italy.

In the series, compositionally similar images of African and European artworks are presented side by side. The images function as a form of visual conversation. And in isolation from their original context, they give rise to a third context, which offers new possibilities of reading.

Left Image: 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', c. 1665, Johannes Vermeer
Right Image: Untitled, 1952-55, Seydou Keïta

Everything exists within a tradition. When I started ‘Echoes and Agreements’, I wanted the image project to be in conversation with other works. That is when I was reminded of Lorraine O’Grady’s piece, ‘Miscegenated Family Album’ (1995)—a series of sixteen diptychs juxtaposing images of Nefertiti with family photographs of O’Grady’s sister.

In an interview O’Grady gave in 1996 in the journal ‘Sojourner: The Women’s Forum’, she said of the series; “I didn’t become interested in it [the form of the diptych] (…) I was doing it because it was always, for me, a ‘both/and,’ (…) I have always been trying not just to negotiate different points of view, but to contain different points of view. I think that this complexity of the ‘both/and’ is something that’s lived as an everyday reality by Diaspora people.”

O’Grady’s words have resonated with me. Like the artist, I felt the need to visually articulate the concept of the ‘both/and’. A complexity resulting from my cultural backgrounds. This duality has helped me to notice, among the seemingly contrasting realities, the visual echoes that often go unheard.

Left Image: 'Bacchus', c. 1598, Caravaggio
Right Image: 'Portrait of Manziga, (Avungura), Chief of Azande', 1910-1915, Herbert Lang

Through the juxtaposition of known images with lesser-known photographs, the series aims for an invocation of at once universality and particularity. A dichotomy explored through the lens of the African diaspora.

The diptychs of the series are conceived in the space of the in-between. A terrain where borders, intrinsic to the notion of diaspora, are porous. The porous borders “where fear of the Other is the fear of the self,” as Avtar Brah writes in ‘Cartographies of Diaspora’.

By juxtaposing apparently unrelated images, the essential similarities emerge. These similarities speak of the condition of doubleness. In ‘The Origin of Others’, Toni Morrison writes, “There are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves.”

Left Image: 'Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo and Her Son Giovanni', 1545-46, Agnolo Bronzino
Right Image: Untitled, 1973, Malick Sidibé

Thinking about the correlation between the camera and Black-self representation, no one better than Frederick Douglass understood the central role of photography in disrupting the racist images created by the white gaze. He understood the democratising function of the medium.

In ‘Age of Pictures’, a speech he delivered in 1862, Douglass said, “The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly, the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now (…) such pictures are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.”

These are the words that this diptych brings to my mind. A diptych that perfectly shows the democratic function of photography. To have one’s portrait taken was the act by which lower-middle classes inscribe themselves into society, constructing an image that was both visible to themselves and others.

Left Image: 'Je Vais Décoller', 1977, Sanlé Sory
Right Image: 'Come on Board!', 2000, Philip Kwame Apagya

Shifting away from the anthropological images of the Continent made by Europeans, African studio photography did not only represent a projection of prosperity, dignity and respectability. It represented a kind of performance, too. A performance where the sitters displayed forms of subjectivity that were imagined.

Consider the two photographs. The portrait on the left made by Burkinabe photographer Sanlé Sory, the one on the right by Ghanaian photographer Philip Kwame Apagya.

In both images, the cartoonish hand-painted backdrop allowed the people portrayed to enact, to stage, their imagined selves, their desire for travelling. A desire that in most cases coincided with the aspiration to live in Western countries. An aspiration fuelled by the imagined marvels of the Western world.

Top Image: 'Dancing Scene in the West Indies', 1764-96, Agostino Brunias
Bottom Image: 'Women Singing on the First Day of the Festival, Otuo', July 1909, Northcote Whitridge Thomas

In the series, I wanted to register the melodic structures shared by different visual compositions. In this search, I didn’t only listen to the inter-dialogues (the dialogues between the African and European contexts). I also lingered on the intra-dialogues: the conversations that unfold within the diasporic terrain.

The repetitions of images that we find in the visual history of the Black diaspora are a reflection of shared practices. Practices that remind us of the ‘changing same’ that characterises the global Black experience.

Listening to the intra-dialogues, I thought about a question posed by W. G. Sebald; “Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect?”

I often think of the notion of umwelt (environment) theorised by German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. According to Uexküll, organisms can have different “umwelt,” even though they share the same environment. A dissonance that produces different experiences of the same space.

His thought is kin to the one expressed by Ghanaian sociologist Kwame Nimako. Theorising the diaspora space, Nimako formulated the theory of “parallel lives and intertwined belongings.” A theory that refers to a people who share the same space but have different experiences and memories.

Nimako writes, “With regard to Africa and Europe in relation to the transatlantic slave trade, we see that the African captives shared the same ship as their European captors (i.e. intertwined belonging) but the histories of how they boarded the ship and conditions on the ship were fundamentally different (i.e. parallel lives).”

Nimako’s thought brings to my mind Avtar Brah’s words. In ‘Cartographies of Diaspora’, Brah writes, “the same geographical and psychic space comes to articulate different ‘histories’ and how ‘home’ can simultaneously be a place of safety and of terror.”

In the series ‘Echoes and Agreements’, I wanted to find a visual conversation between the terror experienced by the Black body and the Passion experienced by the body of Christ. The Black body, like the body of Christ, pays the price of uncommitted sins.

Left Image: 'Back Study (After the Model Joseph) for 'The Raft of the Medusa', c. 1818-19, Théodore Géricault
Right Image: 'Muhammad Ali, Preparing For His Fight Against Brian London', London, 1966, James Barnor

I’m thinking of the expressive possibilities of the human back. There are a hundred ways of turning the back.

In ‘Blind Spot’, Teju Cole writes; “One turns away to show what cannot otherwise be shown. The sense in turning away. The power of a gesture that speaks without being spoken to.”

Left Image: 'The School of Athens', detail, 1509-11, Raphael
R: 'Angela Davis and Toni Morrison', 1974, Jill Krementz

In ‘Five Ways of Being a Painting’, historian William Max Nelson writes; “Like any good aphorism, the short sentence functions as both a part and a whole. At first, it seems to make sense in isolation, yet it calls out for placement within a context that could reveal some fuller meaning.”

I like to think of images as good aphorisms. Visual synecdoches subject to instant recall.


Theophilus Marboah

Theophilus "Imani" Marboah is a Ghanaian-Italian medical student at the University of Pavia. Besides his medical education, Theophilus has cultivated a profound interest in the global Black experiences, with a particular focus on African and African diasporan contemporary art. His image project, “Echoes and Agreements”, was featured in Vanity Fair Italia, and has been a subject of scholarly interest.


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