Journey to the Jungle: Imagery, Self-Redemption and Eurocentrism
By Yurderkys Espinosa Miñoso
With annotations by Anissa Boujdaini
The idea of coloniality of power was proposed by the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano in 1992 to point out the pattern of power that has operated on a world scale during the last five centuries and constitutes the hidden face of modernity. It allows the establishment of the intrinsic relation between conquest and colonisation of “America”, the production of the idea of “race”, the emergence of capitalism and modernity.
For Quijano, the coloniality of power is constitutive and specific to the world pattern of capitalist power and originates in the imposition of a racial classification of human groups. As manifested in later developments, the coloniality of power “operates in each of the planes, spheres and dimensions, material and subjective, of daily existence and on a social scale”.
The first recorded baptism in Alta California. Taken from p. 285 of San Juan Capistrano Mission by Engelhardt, Zephyrin (1922).
The codification of the differences between conquerors and conquered produced the idea of race as a historical form of control. The idea of race is the most durable and stable mental construction produced by colonialism, argues the author, thus asserting that with the conquest and colonisation of America came the first globalisation of colonial/ modern and Eurocentric capitalism.
The racial division of labour amongst whites, Indians, blacks, and mestizos determined new historical and social identities within the racist distribution of labour and the forms of exploitation of colonial capitalism.
Casta painting containing complete set of 16 casta combinations ; Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico
Thus, the foundational myth of the Eurocentric version of modernity was the conception of the state of nature as the starting point of the civilising course whose culmination is European or Western civilisation. It is this myth that sustained the evolutionary interpretation that proposed a unilateral and unidirectional change in human history associated with the racial classification of the world’s population.
For Quijano, as for other authors who are part of the so-called decolonial turn, questioning Eurocentrism as the hegemonic perspective of knowledge is fundamental to understanding the coloniality of power in the sense that it includes and needs a coloniality of knowledge, a coloniality of being, a coloniality of aesthetics and produced a coloniality of gender.
“De negro y española sale mulato — negro 1. española 2. mulato 3.” Oil on canvas, circa 1780, Collección Malu y Alejandra Escandon, Ciudad de México.
The Chromatics of Coloniality or the Coloniality of the Gaze
Contrary to what is regularly argued, the Colombian artist Adolfo Albán Achinte has pointed out that, more than an invisibilisation, what exists is a negative visibilisation of the Afrodescendant peoples, and, we might add, of the conquered and colonised peoples as a whole.
In a multitude of images that began to be elaborated from the very moment of Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean, people from outside Europe were shown as inferior, backward, in a state of “nature”, submissive or on the contrary barbaric, and above all in need of Europe. By contrast, in the same images, the European presented himself as superior, that is, according to his own doctrine: dressed in clothing, upright, proud, advanced… It is important to take note in these images of who occupies the foreground, the upper and lower planes, who is the centre and who is the landscape.
“De Español, y Mulata, sale Morisca”, oil painting, 1775-1800, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Inventario CE5230.
The decolonial Nigerian-born American philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze suggested that we think of the colour of reason. According to his idea, after the colonisation of Africa, skin colour was no longer an arbitrary mark. It formed a pyramidal structure of power that imposed new relationship between human groups. For him, from then on, there was a “chromatic” of power.
An entire system of representation of those others who were painted was configured with the colonist’s brush, in this way preventing, or at least trying by all means to prevent, that the other could re-present himself.
Albán Achinte proposes a relationship between the teleological temporal construction invented by modernity and the “chromatised epidermal”. With it there was an operation that articulated the Indian, mulatto, black, to the past, to what was named pre-modern. In this space-time, all the non-white, the peripheral, the non-European were inscribed, as Fanon put it, as the non-human. Thus, he affirms, the aesthetics of the present-future of modernity was circumscribed to white: everything must be whitened and chromatic diversity must be eliminated since its existence constitutes a problem for modernity.
The whole symbolic system of representation of worldly beauty was disrupted from that moment on. Colonised peoples were seen as incapable of producing symbolic work appropriate to the new period since it was redefined according to certain standards considered universal and characteristic of what was named art. The creative act par excellence was only attributable to the human. A superior aesthetic corresponded to the Enlightenment (the moment of maximum development of modernity) and to those who had been able to enter it, that is, the Europeans. This first occurred in the narrations of the expeditionaries, then in paintings, photography… cinema, television, advertising…
Guillermo Antonio Farini avec Earthmen , Londres, photographie en studio (exhibition au Royal Aquarium), 1884. Coll. Pitt Rivers Museum.
Immanuel Kant, one of the key figures of European philosophy, who never visited America but was emphatic in defining the differences between Europe and colonised peoples in terms of the inability of the latter to leave the tutelage of tradition and the past and overcome themselves. Kant wrote in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:
“The blacks of Africa naturally lack a sensibility that rises above the insignificant. Mr. Hume challenges to be presented with an example of a black man showing talent, and states that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks transported to strange lands, and although many of them have obtained freedom, not one has been found who has imagined something great in art, in science, or in any other honorable quality, while among whites there is often the case of those who by their conditions rise from a humble state and conquer an advantageous reputation. So essential is the difference between these two human races; it seems as great in spiritual faculties as in color… Blacks are very vain, but in their own way, and so talkative, that they must be beaten apart…”
This myth about the inhabitants of Africa and America, systematically constructed from the stories of the expeditionaries, resulted in monstrous, ugly and fearsome representations in literature, philosophy, visual arts and photography.
Picture captured by Alice Seely Harris in Baringa depicting Bompenju, Lofiko—brothers of Nsala—, a third person, John Harris and Edgar Stannard with the hands of Lingomo and Bolengo, which have allegedly been killed by sentries of the ABIR
History of photography was linked from its beginnings to anthropology and other areas of knowledge that resorted to the “new continent” in its exercise of knowing and elaborating knowledge about the cultures and ways of life of colonised peoples. Once discovered, photography became a tool par excellence to represent the “other” and the extra-European world.
For this purpose, a whole technology was deployed to guide the best way to photograph the colonised subject and to show him “as he is”. Juan Naranjo points out that photography was fundamental in the transition from the centrality of printed writing to that of images.
The first to use photography for anthropological purposes was Sabin Berthelot, a mid-nineteenth century naturalist, who in his work Histoire naturelle des Îles Canaries published in 1842, used photographs of skulls and two portraits to accompany his research on the Canarian race. From then on, photography would be a major tool for the study of human races.
It is interesting that later a whole debate would be unleashed regarding the quality of the photographs that were being used by anthropologists as a source for their theories. They did not meet the agreed scientific parameters as they were mostly commercial in nature to satisfy the curiosity of European consumers and their fantasies about the “new” world. Many of these circulating images “reproduced all kinds of fantasies related to orientalism and other exotisms, and were used to create stereotyped identities that pleased romantic European consumers”.
In the book Viaje por Brasil by Agassiz and Agassiz (1868):
“The first thing that surprised me when I saw Indians and blacks together was the marked difference in the relative proportions of the different parts of their bodies. Blacks, like monkeys with long arms, are generally slimmer, with long legs, long arms and body comparatively cone, while Indians have short legs, arms cones and long bodies, with fairly stocky trunks. To continue with the comparison, I would say that, if the black man reminds the slender and active Hylobates, the Indian looks more like the slow, inactive and robust orangutan. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.”
As through photography, drawing, painting and literature have played a large role in the production of Europe’s image of a colonised person, as part of the great constructed story about America and about itself.
The Representation of America: Between Savagery and Beauty
In an extensive research project entitled Imperial Eyes. Travel and transculturation literature, Mary Louise Pratt demonstrates the basis on which the ideals of independence and emancipation were established in the colonies came from the enlightened ideas developed in Europe to the extent that they were taught and expanded to the rest of the territories as universal truths and ideals. By the end of the eighteenth century, these ideas had spread in the colonies among the ruling class, which at that time was mainly composed of the criollos or children of Spaniards born in America. The author proposes to see how the Creole saw themselves as the “contact group” between civilisation and barbarism, that is, between the peoples that inhabited America and Europe.
For Pratt, the project of the great homeland, America, is a productive fiction recreated from the very reading of Europe, as the “other” of it. It was through the chronicles of the European naturalists who traveled the continent as this fiction spread and served not only for the European project but also the nascent ruling class in America.
Alexander von Humboldt ‘s discovery expedition in Brazil, 1800- 1804. Published in 1891. Liebig Company series of Dutch
Since the nineteenth century, the naturalists produced a supposedly objective and neutral representation of America in accordance with the validity criteria of the new scientific method. In doing so, they ensured that Europe would have the right to classify, catalogue, name and rename species, peoples and different living systems on the continent.
Pratt observes how many of the representations of and ideas about America constructed by the expeditionaries, conquerors and, later, by the naturalists were perpetuated through the political and fictional literature produced by the intellectual elites of the time. She remembers that Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Aimé Bondplan visited America between 1799 and 1800, traveling to Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, the USA, Peru and Mexico. From 1807 to 1834, Humboldt’s grandiose work relating to the journey through America appeared in thirty volumes.
America was gradually being invented through the gaze of the West and this gaze was adapted by the intellectual elites of the ex-colonies who played a fundamental role in configuring an “own” image of the new independent nations, and of America as a whole during the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus the virgin America of these naturalists “provided a starting point for the elaboration of civic and moral prescriptions for the new republics. Its reinvention from America to Europe was transculturated by Euro-American writers to the Creole process of self-invention”.