Through African Eyes

Europeans arm in arm with their dog

Europeans arm in arm with their dog

What does this carving, made in Africa depicting two Europeans on a dog walk, mean to say?

Such works were often consciously double-edged, designed for dual clientele. A 20th-century doll-like carving by the Yoruba artist Thomas Ona Odulate of a European couple, arms around each other and walking a dog, broadcast satirical messages that the European buyers would likely miss. In Nigeria the couple’s affectionate gesture was unacceptable public behavior; keeping a dog, an animal reserved for practical use in much of Africa, as a pet was scorned as a foolish Western custom.

This figure is from a New York Times article on the Detroit museum exhibit “Through African Eyes”, an exhibit showing pieces of art in which African artists draw from, mock, and objectify figures of Europe. The pieces underscore how objects, artistic or technological, can never be assumed to mean the same thing to different people. Objects can be fundmentally ambiguous or even doubly-meaningful. This points to how when we analyze objects, we might talk about shared meaning but we should also talk about exchange, incommensurability, and the fact that we can never fully know what is meant. Coming off of my presentation at CHI 2010 on Postcolonial Computing, these tactics and sensibilities are particularly on my mind.

Other kinds of postcolonial interventions I’d like to see? Documenting innovations and technologies in Europe learned from African practices — not just slavery and raw materials flowing through metropoles, but also knowledge.

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