Humor and Violence: Seeing Europeans in Central African Art by Z.S. Strother is a study of representations of Europeans in Central African visual culture spanning more than 150 years. Through these artworks, the book sheds fresh light on salient aspects of longstanding, complicated relationships among neighboring Central African peoples and various categories of their visitors, including non-Europeans. Rich, bold, and absorbing, the study explores several dimensions of such representations in a variety of artistic media, from the time of initial contact, through slavery and colonialism, to the contemporary period.
As indicated in the title, it is a book on “seeing,” and it lives up to that claim. It is an authoritative work of careful scholarship that reflects vast experience and exemplary skills in critical looking and analysis of visual images supported by rich contextual, historical, psychological, and cultural insights. Lucidly written, it is readily accessible to experts and nonexperts alike.
While a book is not judged by its cover alone, the cover of Humor and Violence is an appropriate starting point for its review. The striking cover image of a lounging European trader traveling on a tipoy carried by two Africans depicts one of the most popular imageries of such relationships in the African psyche. Even though this book transcends the colonial period, the image remains a potent emblem of such uneven power relationships through the ages. Yet it is combined with the curiously paired subjects “humor and violence” in its title. Both are rarely explored subjects, whether individually or jointly, in African art history.
Inside the book, rigorous exploration of both themes through aspects of visual culture offers revealing, and sometimes excruciating, portraits not only of relationships between Central Africans and Europeans but of humankind in general. Humor and Violence is organized in seven chapters set between the pre-1840s period and the late 1990s. It is enriched and enlivened with carefully deployed anecdotes, wit, and humor that are insightful and relevant to the subject at hand in historical and contemporary terms. In several cases, analyses and interpretations are strung on threads of carefully deployed anecdotes which, in a few cases, given their historical nature, are freshly presented and resonate with the world today.
Drawing upon enduring topologies of the gaze from African literature and popular visual culture, chapter 1 sets the stage for an understanding of interactions between Africans and Europeans represented on Loango carved ivory tusks. In the 1840s this type of carving thrived amid a nexus of ports from around Cape Lopez in present-day Gabon to Luanda in Angola. As virtually every act of looking is caught in the subtleties of power, this chapter explores prevailing dynamics of the political, economic, and psychological power within which such representations flourished.
Through notions of the “observer observed in the literature on Africa” in Tintin in the Congo and Mary Louise Pratt's “reciprocal vision” located “in the ideology of capitalism, which maintains a friction of free agents entering into contracts out of mutual interest and advantage” (p. 2), Strother identifies the subject of “reciprocal vision (or touch)” in gestures of touch exchanged between an African and his European counterpart. For Strother, these are “moments of mutual recognition, when what the two share outweighs their differences” (p. 4). Strother observes that even though some of such artifacts were made by Africans for Africans, they largely catered to a foreign patronage within systems of violence.
Provocatively titled “Warning! What Do You See? A White Man? Or an Overdressed One?” the second chapter cautions viewers not to project race on Central African images of Europeans merely on the basis of observable physical characteristics and differences. For Strother, the European concept of “race” among Africans seems an implantation from the high colonial period. Drawing upon Huey Copeland's observation on “raced vision” (p. 23), Strother cautions against inferences based on noticeable physical features that could misinform. She observes that “Central African artists showed an acute understanding that ‘European’ identity was performed—it was a matter of how one dressed, drank, ate, worked, relaxed, and guarded one's valuables” (p. 29).
Chapter 3 explores relationships between Africans and European traders along the Loango coast as represented on commodified artifacts circulated by traders/art patrons in the period between slavery and colonialism. “No matter how beguiling the imagery on the works from the coast,” Strother asserts, “viewers must remember that violence served as the necessary backdrop for all representations of Europeans or Americans, even those touched by flashes of humor” (p. 43).
Through some of its images, the book interprets contrasting profiles of Africans and Europeans. For instance, representations of pets show that the European trader with his dog cut a lonesome figure in contrast to “the African ruler who counts his wealth in people” (p. 80). In a climate of mutual distrust, both sides jostled for power by scrutinizing and manipulating the other's religious and political symbols. European traders created power objects and deflected loneliness and depressed moods through moments of “carnival laughter” offered through some of the carved ivories and sculptures. Among several sources, excerpts from the memoir of Charles Jeannest, a French trader, enrich this chapter.
Chapter 4, the longest in the book, examines disquieting portrayals of Africans engaged in war and “human trafficking” on a series of tusks from the 1880s. It contends that the trafficking represented on the tusks might have been drawn from an ongoing “Arab-Swahili slave trade” in eastern Africa, which continued in the wake of abolition in the West and subsequently became the rationale for European military intervention and formal colonization.
Titled “Humor in the Hygiene of Power,” chapter 5 highlights the paradox of most of the lighthearted images of Europeans produced during periods of sustained violence—military occupation. It examines the book's cover image—a Bembe sculptural tableau of a European trader traveling in a tipoy—and argues that rather than seeing it as a work of flattery, it seems a rebuttal to aspects of an earlier German engraving on similar subject. Importantly, Strother explores aspects of the tableau in detail through codes of representation grounded in local artistic idioms such as mundele, “the man of foreign cloth,” where being overdressed is an identifier of difference, rather than skin color; and the vertical stripes on the face of one of the porters not as decorative but similar to Niombo tears and indexical of empathy.
Strother notes a shift in the “political economy of laughter” during the early colonial period, when foreign and local patrons considered laughter dangerous but appreciated it as a form of “mental hygiene.” Notable among such colonial apologists was Leo Frobenius, who espoused the use of laughter by colonial officers not only as a tool of self-discipline but also as a shield to keep Africans from “slaughtering” them. As missionaries and political activists circulated “atrocity” photographs showing the enforcement of rubber quotas through hand amputations, in some cases including that of a child, the Congo Free State, on a charm offensive, countered by gifting several amusing images to some world-renowned ethnographic museums. Also, some African artists reciprocated by donating to museums mildly incongruous images of colonials “as a healing gesture of reconciliation” (p. 20).
The final chapters focus on Congolese and African victims in the “Congolese Imaginary”—a collection of works, produced through the high colonial and postcolonial periods, that were intended for a Congolese audience. As Strother notes, “most Congolese internalized self-censorship and developed modes of indirect discourse” (p. 206). Nkanu initiation wall panels and Pende chiefs' chairs exemplify such indirection. Despite their sacred contexts, both transgress boundaries (secular and sacred) as public sites of satire, even if covert, that address sexual assault, European sexuality, and political liaisons. The last chapter offers insights into what happens when Africans have agency in artistic and political terms and highlights “The Colonizer in the Political Imaginary of Mobutu” (p. 267). Considering Cheri Samba's artistic strategies and stratagems, Strother finds him “most successful at negotiating postcolonial desires while maintaining an independent voice—and he accomplishes this through his mastery of west Congolese humor” (p. 275).
It may be argued that every research project is essentially a conversation among extant studies on particular subjects. Strother's Humor and Violence is a fascinating collection of such conversations, not in an informal sense of the word, but in terms of the eloquence and ease with which the author melds constituent parts of this volume. At a broader level, Strother compellingly connects two forms of communication—humor and violence—that rarely coexist in the same universe. She reconciles these seemingly incompatible subjects through the addition of a third and somewhat reconciliatory one, “healing”—humor-inspired healing in particular. While violence implies the worst of human instincts, healing specifically addresses the best of that very nature.
She both explores these human expressions within universal theoretical frameworks and locates each within local and cultural contexts. Indeed, both are universal human expressions. While humor may be amorphous, often context-dependent and culturally specific, violence is a universally disavowed vehement expression. Yet both terms offer psychological insights into the nature of human relationships, as Strother's intellectual offering amply demonstrates.
These conversations reflect inclusiveness and sensitivity to every voice. The book gives as much attention to the voice of the colonized as to that of the colonizer, and in particular to the cacophony of mediating voices aligned within both categories. Such voices include artists and viewers, traders and patrons, culture bearers, brokers, and controlling institutions. She sustains several other intellectual discourses between the scepter and the staff, the colonized and the colonizers, taking into consideration the dynamics of economics, patronage, and the local language capacity for nuances of humor.
Nor is the author's voice left out of this conversation—it resonates through the book. Strother negotiates difficult conversations with care. She negotiates power and gender relations with remarkable alertness and sensitivity to bruised egos. This work should be of great interest to students, scholars, and a general audience interested in African visual culture.