January 19, 2008

Lennart Nilsson's Portrait Of An Aka Tribesdad Tribesmom In The Family Of Man

family_of_man_lnilsson.jpg

There were some exceptions, but in the photos in Edward Steichen's massive 1955 exhibition, The Family of Man, they liked their women nursing or pregnant, and they liked their black people naked, maybe holding a spear. As Louis Kaplan wrote, quoting photographer Allan Sekula:

"The Family of Man and its photo globalism is not the demonstration of a priori universals, as it claims, but a willful attempt to universalize in the name of a particular American bureaucratic agenda. "My main point here is that The Family of Man, more than any other single photographic project, was a massive and ostentatious bureaucratic attempt to universalize photographic discourse." From Sekula's perspective, The Family of Man is an exercise in hegemony--a capitalist cultural tool in the struggle for world domination at the height of the Cold War. "In the foreign showings of the exhibition, arranged by the United States Information Agency and co-sponsoring corporations like Coca-Cola, the discourse was explicity that of American multinational capital and government--the new global management team-- cloaked in the familiar and musty garb of patriarchy. [American Exposures, p. 76]
The irony, at least in the case of this photo of an Aka tribesman carrying his son through the Belgian Congo, is that the musty old patriarchy ends up subverting itself. There are no gender-based divisions of labor when it comes to parenting in Aka culture; men are equal participants in raising their kids from infancy, right down to suckling. [Washington State University anthropologist Barry Hewlitt observed Aka dads calming their babies while hunting by letting them sucking on their nipples. Finally, they're good for something besides titty twisters.] The Aka's example ends up calling into question the biological determinism of male-female roles.

And also, it's been 50+ years, and has anyone come up with a cooler-looking canvas sling? Aka: 2, First World: 0.

update: uh, yeah, so about that Aka photo subverting patriarchy and white corporate rule? While it's still true that Aka babies use their dads' nipples as pacifiers, that's not one in the photo. As Ella points out, that Aka hunter is a mom.

Bonus Congo trivia: the photographer Lennart Nilsson is the same guy who went on to do all that insane endoscopic photography of embryos and feti in A Child Is Born.

Previously: The Family of Man and Wayne Miller's Family
Still no info on that Dorothea Lange photo of a dad holding his new kid

Why Men Have Nipples. Seriously
Lennart Nilsson's A Child Is Born and that NOVA episode you remember

7 Comments

Are we SURE that's a dude? That right breast looks veeeery, um, breast-y

[uh, about that subverting the patriarchy blah blah blah, never mind... -ed.]

I dunno, the men *do* let the kids suck on their nipples... maybe the kid just has the power of a Hoover... :)

I'm sure it's a woman, too. It's been documented elsewhere that in many pre-industrial societies, women who carry and nurse babies for years have the boobs to do it. (See 'Parenting for Primates' by Harriet Smith) Sorry if the image destroys what people think of breasts, but natural breasts are kind of flat and bulbous.

I'm not saying the men don't suckle the babies. It's just that boob looks like mine after my first baby. I go to keep the bottom half. :)

The mistake was sooooooo worth it for the laugh! I needed it! Thanks!

"...a willful attempt to universalize in the name of a particular American bureaucratic agenda..."

Are you kidding? What was this even TRYING to mean?

The bar for literary/artistic criticism is so freakin' low. People are not proven smart by their ability to chain three-dollar words together under the guise of a sentence.

I hate to say it but it's why half the 'creative' people I know and care about get stuck in a meta-analytical one-upmanship process and spend hours inexplicably sounding like douches. 'You can't value-judge my opinions?!' Sho' nuff I can, when it's dressed up in the pedantic language of topical authority.


Grumble, sorry. I have digressed.

Look, b00bies!

[sorry if I made you have to think, I know that's not what blogs are for. I'll get to the meaning in a minute, but please don't think I don't know what overwritten, deliberately elitist, esoteric pseudo-academic jargon is; I'm soaking in it. I live in the art world and work in the movie world, so show-offy critics are not alien to me. It's part of the point. Like if I sound a bit too much like Justin McBride when I write about bullriding.

As for the meaning, I don't want to double down on douchiness, but it means what it says: there is an undeniably political and propagandistic element to the claims of universality made in an art exhibition curated by two former leaders of the US Navy's war photography division, which was sponsored and sent around the world by Coca Cola and the USIA. While there's also a lot of over-interpreting on the connections between modern artists such as Jackson Pollock and the US' postwar cultural imperialism, there is also plenty of documented and undisputed fact that in the 1950's, modernism and abstraction--and photography as art--were seen as signs of American creativity, vitality, and innovation that was only possible because of Our Freedom and Our Free Enterprise, aka The American Way of Life. America and Russia were in the process of picking teams, and culture and information was integral to the effort. MoMA was an epicenter of this activity.

In the linked book above, there are accounts of the protests and reception of "Family of Man" which don't factor into the current remembrance of the exhibit, specifically protests by expat Africans in Europe who objected to the indordinate depcition of dark-skinned people as naked, spear-toting savages needing enlightened aid. To someone in an African colony of a spent European power, Steichen's talk of universality and "can't we all just get along?" had to sound quite different.

So yeah, I kind of see your point, but I thought it'd be more obnoxious and pedantic to lay all that out, when all I really wanted to do was slap a post up with an unusual vintage photo of a dad. Who turned out to be a mom, surprising no one but me. -ed,]

No need to apologize, I'm usually gnawing on something back in the cave - metaphorically or otherwise. I apologize if you took something personally.

That said, I think you give too light a bye on interpretation in general.

Historical analysis I'm a big fan of, but not when it's drowning in outdated priorities. It tends to waste time on musty -ism arguments that have more business being footnotes and background reading at this point in our culture. Great for a grad student wrestling with how we got from C to G, and seeing what postcards we posted along the way. (Or, perhaps, to woo an art student.)

If you revisit, my comment was aimed at the quoted content - not yours. I live in the academic world. I'm surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of faux-value-added navelgazing. The dust on the pre-post-adhoc-proto-gyno-imperialists raping the Dark Continent rhetoric was making me sneeze.

Like I said, it was a digression. Didn't mean to pull you down with me, sir.

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