Africa And The Anthropologist: Isaac Schapera, Felix Bryk, Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk Research Paper

Length: 10 pages Sources: 5 Subject: Anthropology Type: Research Paper Paper: #56985169 Related Topics: Africa, Ethnography, South Africa, Photography
Excerpt from Research Paper :

As depicted here, the other female actresses in the film -- played by actual Africans -- are naked above the waist. The white actress is not. Indeed, the lower photograph depicts Gehrts-Schomburgk reclining on a leopard skin rug, while a topless native woman fans her with an elaborate fan made of feathers. The ludicrous excess of the colonialist fantasy could not be more evident here.

Yet this actress is the same woman whose "anthropological" photographs would be included in the English-langugage publication of Felix Bryk's Dark Rapture. As a result of the photographer's own strange backstory, Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk's photographs of Africa occupy a rather unique place: although some are included in her early memoir of the "ethnodramas" -- whose English-language version (published in 1915 in Philadelphia and London) was entitled A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland -- they would be collected by themselves in 1930 under the title Negertypen Des Schwartzen Erdteils, or "Negro Types of the Dark Continent," indicating an ethnographic survey but also an intrinsic artistic interest (at a period in time when African native art was well-established with the European avant-garde as having its own particular aesthetic). It is these 1930 photographs -- now credited to "M. Gehrts-Schomburgk," to elide the photographer's gender (and possibly her earlier celebrity) -- that accompany the 1944 publication of Felix Bryk's Dark Rapture. As a result of this complicated history, the same set of photographs has essentially served several different cultural functions for its target audience. As an accompaniment to Schomburgk's "ethnodramas," Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk's photographs of African natives taken by the white star ingenue of the films would basically qualify as straight-up colonialism: a native product (in this case, authenticity) was being packaged and sold in the normal commercial processes within Europe, as the 1915 memoir is clearly intended to accompany the marketing of the films (and the films were intended to pay for Schomburgk's own African expeditions). By 1930, the photographs have become art, and a sort of dilettante's ethnography. By 1944, for the English language audience, the veneer of ethnography is important, but in essence the work -- along with Bryk's work -- is now being sold under the dubious category of "erotica," i.e., as something little better than pornography. Although neither Gehrts-Schomburgk's photographs nor Bryk's book are particularly salacious or prurient, the hint as to the book's intent is provided by the fly-by-night publishing venture that issued them, "Juno Books" of Forest Hills, New York -- which seems to have issued no other recorded publications at all. The 1944 publication of Bryk's text and Gehrts-Schomburgk's photographs seem to indicate a climate in which titillating material was frequently issued under the guise of "scientific" validity, because scientific utility was harder to censor than something obviously intended to be pornographic. But to a certain degree, Meg Gehrts-Schomburgk's ethnographic photographs of Africa were already to a certain extent contaminated by her fame as a film star making silent film melodramas about the German colonial enterprise. The actual photos -- while they may depict topless women -- are hardly intended to titillate, but at the same time the captions indicate a vast condescension which is hardly appropriate for professional anthropology: we may see this in Gehrts-Schomburgk's plate 3 (depicted in Figure 2 at the end) whose caption reads "Mangbetu woman. She wears no hat. She does not need one, with that imposing edifice of hair." (Bryk, ix). While there is some utility to the caption -- the woman depicted in the photo has an elaborate hairstyle that resembles a hat -- nonetheless this ends up sounding like a condescending version of Vogue magazine.

How does this somewhat preposterous work that passes for anthropology bear upon the work of someone like Isaac Schapera? First, as noted earlier, Alfred Kinsey accorded Schapera the same status as Bryk when assessing anthropological work on the sexual habits of African tribes -- then again, Kinsey was not really an anthropologist himself, although he too was essentially making up a scientistic paradigm for himself as he collected ethnographic information. (It is perhaps no accident that Kinsey's own pioneering report has come under the same harsh critique that has also been leveled against Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, and others.) From the standpoint of contemporary twenty-first century anthropology, certainly no-one would want to place Schapera in the same category...

...

Yet the basis of Schapera's work is, as Ugochukwu has noted, a willingness to observe cultural hybridity. Schapera's basic break with Malinowski and the others was to observe that, in the field, the anthropologist would frequently observe churches, stores, etc., but that these were seldom mentioned in the ethnographies. The fact of those churches is precisely relevant here. Schapera himself notes that his status as a Jew put him at a slightly odd angle to the prevailing culture anyway: yet as an editor and serious critic of the earlier Christian missionary Livingstone, Schapera is clearly willing to pay attention to the ways in which the European Christian presence in Africa may have already begun to affect the daily life of Africans. Schapera's own work on Livingstone emphasizes the way that the missionary stood up for the essential humanity of the natives: he notes that Livingstone's "hostile" criticism of the Boers in South Africa was due to the fact "that they were opposed to the spread of the gospel among the Africans, whom they considered as little better than baboons" (Schapera 145). If we in the twenty-first century are inclined to suspect Christian missionaries of a vast condescension toward the populations they seek to convert, Schapera (who is not a Christian) nonetheless points out that the Christian missionary had the greater concern for the inherent dignity of these natives. Yet there were ways in which the missionary enterprise did otherwise resemble the colonial enterprise. For example, Jean and John Comaroff describe the missionary elements of the English colonial enterprise in terms of a process whereby "the savage would, by careful tending, be elevated into something like the late British yeomanry; many of the evangelists…spoke quite openly of creating a society of independent peasants…in speaking thus, they relied heavily on horticultural metaphors, evoking the recreation of the spoiled English garden in Africa's 'vast moral wastes'." (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 80). As a result, the idea of an ethical and social waste was propounded, in which Christian practices could be established. These observations are important because, when we contrast Schapera with Felix Bryk, we are forced to observe the way in which the "exotic" sexual practices of Africans might already have been affected by the rather strong approach taken by Christianity to specifically sexual morality. For example, Kuper reports that in the 1960s even Africans who had converted to Christianity had "set themselves up as guardians and critics of morality, but not from the essentially foreign perspective of mission churches….Some churches banned polygynists, but not all; and the current sexual permissiveness was in general taken for granted" (Kuper 1987, 159). This would seem to indicate that -- despite the general belief that Christian missionaries stand for a restrictive and conversative sexual discourse (which to this day gives us the commonly-used phrase "missionary position") -- the reality of sexual discourse even in Christianized Africa was vastly more complex. In other words, Schapera's general approach -- of recognizing the "hybridity" of such cultures -- is precisely relevant even when considering sexual mores.

Yet this is where a consideration of Schapera's photography becomes interesting. In the large number of ethnographic photos collected by the Comaroffs in the posthumous published edition, there is not a single photograph by Schapera that depicts the interior of an African dwelling. This fact is significant insofar as Schapera's work deals significantly enough with the sex lives of Africans that it was used by Dr. Kinsey, yet Schapera himself may have been dealing with the subject at a certain remove. In his late interviews with Adam Kuper, Schapera makes comments that indicate to a certain extent that the sexual mores of Christian missionaries may have already had some effect on the Africans:

IS: Tshekedi started off well, but after…for instance, when it came to sexual seduction

AK: Not a particularly Tswana custom!

IS: No. Well, he was a prude. He didn't think that this was law and custom. (Schapera and Kuper 2001, 4)

This same line of argument -- in which Schapera suggests that the local chief Tshekedi was possessed of prudish sexual morality -- is expanded upon further in the second part of Schapera's interview with Kuper:

AK: Although didn't you get into a bit of trouble when Married Life in an African Tribe came out? The trouble was that it dealt not only with marriage, but more generally with sexual relations, which upset some of the more puritan chiefs.

IS: No. Tshekedi was the…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Bryk, Felix. Dark Rapture: The Sex-Life of the African Negro. New York: Juno Press, 1944. Print.

Comaroff, Jean, and Comaroff, John L. "British Beginnings: Spirits of an Age, Signs of the Times." In Of Revelation And Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. pp. 49-85. Print.

Comaroff, John L., Comaroff, Jean, and James, Deborah. Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Gehrts, M. A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland: The Adventures, Observations, and Experiences of a Cinematograph Actress in West African Forests Whilst Collecting Films Depicting Native Life and When Posing as the White Woman in Anglo-African Cinematograph Dramas. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1915. Archive.org. Retrieved 30 April 2014 at: https://archive.org/details/cameraactressinw00gehrrich


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