Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 21, 2015
Carol Magee Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Identities, and African Visual Culture Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. 256 pp.; 6 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781617031526)
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Although popular culture and its incidental pleasures are constantly consumed, such things are not usually assessed with the same meticulous and critical lenses trained upon other forms of culture. Indeed, despite the victories of cultural studies, there is still less ink spilt (or keys tapped) on close academic analyses of pop culture than objects classed as “art.” Carol Magee’s Africa in the American Imagination is a welcome—and exemplary—exception to the rule (though certainly scholars such as Sidney Kasfir have addressed similar pop-cultural topics [Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007]). Magee’s book undertakes detailed and nuanced readings of representations of “Africa” in American popular culture of the past twenty years, considering their connotative and denotative meanings. Magee notes that satisfactions associated with a casual consumption of “Africa” can become “both a point of entry and stopping point,” that is, smoothly consumed without the interruption that critique might bring (11). Her subject of inquiry matters; for, as she further affirms, “popular culture teaches and contests ideas, passing them on and/or overturning them” (11). While some of the examples she discusses have provoked a certain amount of outcry or garnered media attention, they have largely not been subjected to the kind of rigorous scholarly analysis Magee provides.

Africa in the American Imagination primarily focuses on three case studies in which African visual culture is packaged for, and consumed by, North American publics: the 1996 Sports Illustrated (SI) South African Swimsuit Issue, Mattel’s Barbie “Dolls of the World” collection, and Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. While there are distinct sections for each case, Magee is careful to demonstrate the similarities among them. She thoughtfully explores the implications of presenting specific aspects of Africa to audiences in the United States. She analyzes the manner in which these representations speak to a particular set of social relations and dissects the ideological lessons implicitly transmitted by the aforementioned visions of Africa. She also assesses their relation to racial identity in the United States and the ways that representations stand in for the entire continent. Moreover, while Magee uses the term “visual culture,” she considers a provocative range of material that does not appeal to eyesight alone: more wearable or performable objects as well as immersive experiences. In addition to scholarly texts, in all of the chapters Magee draws upon a superlative range of primary sources to introduce diverse perspectives and voices in various tones and registers to her book; these include Kathy Ireland’s diary entries, interviews with Martha Nomvula (the Ndebele woman who appears on Ireland’s right on the photograph reproduced on the cover of Magee’s book), the opinions of Mattel’s designers, YouTube video comments, and conversations with the Cultural Safari guides at Disney World.

The second and third chapters address the 1996 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, “South African Adventure.” In the first of these chapters, Magee focuses on the construction and demarcation of racial difference as it plays out in the swimwear shoots. She begins with a discussion of the photograph on the magazine’s cover, which portrays Tyra Banks and Valeria Mazza—respectively black and white models—dressed nearly identically in leopard-print bikinis. Magee identifies various possible interpretations of the image. While on one hand, the pairing could indicate the end of apartheid, it also might underscore the supposedly color-blind society of the United States or, equally, reproduce the binary that characterizes race relations in the United States. Despite the apparently equal representation on the cover of the issue, the interior of the magazine features a greater number of photos of white models. Identifying parallels with fashion photography and advertising, Magee provides an analysis of the fantasy of sexual availability that pervades the Swimsuit Edition images. Beyond being sexualized and objectified, the black models are coded as more natural than their white counterparts—and are often depicted wearing animal-print swimwear. Magee proposes that the swimsuits serve to “produce the black body as wild” and hypersexualized and, hence, inferior to white bodies (43). The SI photos might be understood to fit into a longer genealogy of image making, which harks back to nineteenth-century depictions of black female bodies in ethnographic and erotic photography. Moreover, rather like the case of Josephine Baker—whose exotic and erotic banana costume Magee briefly mentions—within the frame of SI, the models’ race enables a conflation between “African American” and “African.” This blurring occurs in a photo of Georgianna Robertson, in which the model wears a wig with braids and beads in addition to a leopard-print swimsuit. Magee maintains this former costume element further marks her as “ethnic”: simultaneously different to white Americans and similar to African Americans and Africans. The photos create difference and perpetuate notions of inferior and superior races.

The third chapter discusses parallels between the images in SI and those of National Geographic. It also includes an account of the Magee’s visit to the Ndebele region of South Africa, a popular tourist destination, where a photo shoot for two images in the issue occurred. One of these depicts Ireland and two Ndebele women. The other is a shot of Robertson, who wears only a thong; on her otherwise bare breasts is a painted motif that recalls the colorful patterns on the traditional Ndebele house she stands in front of. Magee presents the perspectives of Esther Mahlangu, the Ndebele artist who created the body painting, as well as Nomvula who was included—effectively as a prop, providing a touch of local color—next to Ireland on the pages of the swimsuit issue. The inclusion of the Ndebele women’s perspectives problematizes the image of seemingly “authentic” African culture presented in SI and, furthermore, illuminates the agency of the South African women in the shoot. Magee also notes that the version of Ndebele culture she is presented during her field research, which is similar to that presented to the SI team, is an undeniable instance of “Ndebele-ness . . . being sold” (69). By publishing the women’s accounts of the process and their reactions to the SI images, which they had never been shown, Magee’s scholarship expands the range of understandings of the photographs. Enabling the Ndebele women to express their opinions, Magee works to make them photographic subjects, rather than objects. Indeed, it is only after reading Magee’s text that the photo on the book’s cover comes to be understood to contain more than an iconic supermodel and anonymous extras. While the erect Ireland vis-à-vis the seated Ndebele women implies a power differential, Magee notes that the African and American subjects are put on more equal footing when both are named.

The fourth chapter, “Fashioning Identities,” analyzes the manner that the Ghanaian Barbie from Mattel’s “Dolls of the World” works to produce understandings of the African continent in general. While the Ghanaian Barbie is a toy, the doll is intended to form part of an adult’s collection, rather than to be played with by children. Like many adaptations of African motifs in fashion, the clothes this Barbie wears possess a pattern that was the work of a Western designer; Mattel’s Sharon Zuckerman created a motif (which was then approved by the government of Ghana) that evokes Asante textile designs without closely reproducing them. Magee argues that the cloth comes to connote a stable but essentialist identity. She moreover contends that the toy is coded to “fashion a nostalgic worldview and reveals promotion of US domination in the world” (96). She states that the Ghanaian Barbie possesses the logic of the souvenir: a travel-related, metonymic representation of the past (107). Magee emphasizes the fact that the Ghanaian Barbie is not one of the toy woman’s numerous friends who have been released over the years, but Barbie herself—imperialistically reproduced as Asante princess. While the faux-kente signifies difference, the doll’s identity obscures and renders that difference nonspecific: “without personalized identities, one can more easily forget the individuality of the people of the countries these Barbie dolls represent” (113).

In the fifth and sixth chapters Magee explores two different components of the Disney World complex: the “it’s a small world” ride in relation to the maintenance of U.S. hegemony and the construction of Africa found in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. These chapters are some of the most interesting in Africa in the American Imagination. Unlike prior, more general, discussions of Disney by Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, or Louis Marin (whom Magee cites), she employs the art-historical skill of close looking to generate a specific analyses of the particularities of “it’s a small world” and the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The former attraction, a ride that brings visitors on a world tour populated by singing automaton children, has its origins in the New York World’s fair of 1964–65; it was reinstalled at the Orlando Disney park in 1966 (115–16). Distinct areas of the “small world” receive radically different treatment: specific European and Asian countries are evoked in dress and language, while Africa, the South Pacific, and Antarctica are largely free of inhabitants and include instrumental soundtracks. Magee holds that the representations of Africa (as well as other non-Western geographical areas) follow the paradigm of “Orientalism.” Recalling the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the architecture of the non-Western pavilions in Epcot (the second of four theme parks) is in a state of ruination; a lack of history characterizes the park’s representations of Africa; labor is largely obscured or absented from the experience; the “African” sites are apparently absent of Westerners; and, finally, clues about the artificiality of the situation are—like the French painter’s brushstroke, Magee argues—carefully effaced (123). Although “it’s a small world” presents international diversity, it ultimately is driven by hegemonic imperialist impulses. In the “finale” of the ride, the musical robot children return—dressed in various cool shades of blue, white, and gold—and singing in English. Made to perform this way, “the children of this small world all become the same, but the markers of sameness are based on American ideals and standards” (136).

“Africa in Florida” describes Magee’s experiences in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, a pastiche of Africa within the Disneyworld resort. She discusses the way that the edifice’s thatch and mud architecture—modes of construction rarely encountered in the United States—operates to signal difference. The workers all wear khaki clothes, which suggest nostalgia for early twentieth-century big game hunts and exploration, while confirming audience expectations of what is supposed to be worn on African safaris. Magee also analyzes the various performances by “cast members” employed by Disney. Unlike the rides in other parts of the park, here real African animals as well as real people, many hailing from African nations, produce the experience. Nightly “Cultural Safaris” (PowerPoint lectures on specific countries), led by performer-pedagogues who are citizens of those nations discussed, also add a dubious sense of authenticity to the experience at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Magee and her research assistant attended a number of these talks during their stay. On the one hand, the employment of the term “safari” to describe the presentations exoticizes the content, which in a number of cases relates to animals. Magee provides an evenhanded account, highlighting potentially positive aspects. She notes that the white, South African speakers discussed urban areas of their country; thus, the encounters could possibly shift understandings of Africa as entirely rural and solely populated by black people. Nevertheless, in conversations with the author, the white guides disclosed that some visitors were unwilling to accept them as African. The Animal Kingdom Lodge houses a fairly impressive collection of African art, artifacts, and photographic documentation as well. Although she does not include a citation explaining further, Magee affirms that “scholars Herbert Cole and Doran Ross, and gallerist Charles Davis” were consultants for Disney on the project (141). Magee acknowledges that the didactic elements of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge might increase cross-cultural understanding. However, she contends, rather like museums, the presentations of Africa tend to prompt visitors to consider the continent as different and distant.

In the conclusion to her introduction Magee affirms: “The principal audiences for whom I wrote are not specialists in African visual culture. Rather, I wrote this for those who engage Africa only in passing references, or through brief and/or superficial encounters, and for those who have not given sustained consideration to the power effects that visual culture has in socializing us into perspectives about the world around us” (28). Though apparently not intended for specialists in African visual culture, such individuals might almost certainly gain new knowledge and insights from Africa in the American Imagination. Additionally, the text highlights directions for new scholarship, modeling ways that art-historical methodologies can productively be used to interpret other visual materials. Moreover, closer in spirit to its author’s statements, the book would be an excellent addition to undergraduate curricula in courses on the history of photography, African art, or African history. Magee’s text will provide lessons for years to come.

John A. Tyson
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, National Gallery of Art

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