Good Western Misconceptions About Africa Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Culture, Africa, Europe, Public, European Union, England, Representation, Science

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/11/02

Western perceptions of Africa are unequivocally tainted according to cultural and political biases. The immense wealth gap and poverty in Africa account for why western countries view it as backwards, uncivilized, heathen, and dependent. Indeed, Africa is often conflated with the notion of the underdeveloped and antiquated Third World country. Currently, various “white American myths about Africa” continue hamper historiography on Africa, which Curtis Kein argues must be deconstructed because perceptions about Africa affect all global citizens. Cultural institutions such as the museum retain much currency for their representation and re-imaginings of certain cultures as a didactic vehicle that presented a hackneyed image of certain cultures. Museums as public spaces negotiated socio-cultural hierarchies, educated national citizens, and ultimately functioned as tools of empire that presented certain ideas about political, economic, and social mores. Because of the pedagogic function of these cultural institutions, the projection of authenticity and reality underlie the formation of these particular exhibitions. Aesthetics often undergird the representation of authenticity in the varied forms of display and the empirical knowledge they impart to viewers. Modernity cultivated a cultural fascination with the notion of effigy, which functioned as a window into understanding various aspects of spectacle and visual entertainment during various time periods. Exhibitions and spectacles brought together various sectors of the European population to promote social cohesion and obedience to the state, thereby playing a formative role in the construction of national identities. Such presentations of Africa convey a distorted truth, as the West sought to reinvent Africa in order to reify hegemonic western discourses and paradigms. Through display and representation, it becomes clear that culture and politics inform one another. Museums, displays and exhibitions all functioned to recreate a reality which had political, social, cultural, and economic meanings imbued by those in charge of creating them.
Using a traditional, top-down cultural historical approach, some historians analyze issues of “authenticity” and the “real” in relation to how European museums present distant cultures and regions. Combined with an anthropological lens, this approach elucidates that ethnological displays retained a pedagogic function along with their entertainment purposes. Non-Europeans and Africans along with their material culture were put on display for public amusement and edification. The authenticity of these displays often does not reflect reality but rather an imagined one crafted by the European elite. Discerning the chasm between tropes, discourses and symbols of African and the actual live African social, political, and economic realities underscores the power that discourse and representation truly wield. Keim considers how the concepts of tribalism and the tribe in the western media as well as political proscriptions facilitate the sanitation of more nuanced causes of violence, which often stems from economic and political activities waged by western societies. Moreover, paternalistic western interventions and policies persist because of “metaphors of relationship” within hegemonic discourses. As such, western readership will continue to struggle in deconstructing hegemonic perceptions of Africa, a geographical locale associated with endemic violence, destruction, and autocracy.
Museums targeted a general audience as part of the imperial project by creating an illusion of authenticity that reified colonial imaginings that were already present. Collecting from colonial sites undergirded colonial practices by making them appear authentic, and the display of collected items served as a public validation for imperialist ventures that defined the contours of national identity and citizenship. Coombes’ Reinventing Africa examines British visual representation of Africa between 1890 and 1913, and considers both popular perceptions and scientific discourses. Invoking case studies and theoretical frameworks, Coombes’ work traces the movement of artifacts, goods and people from the African continent to Britain for the purpose of cultural articulations of identities of the colonizer and the colonized. Using a cultural and post-modern methodological approach, Coombes argues that images of Africa were created, reproduced and reinforced in the British middle-class through museums and ethnographic and missionary exhibitions. The expatriation of African artifacts to Britain for exhibition helped Britain construct a national identity against a supposedly inferior Other who ultimately validated Britain’s imperialist ventures during the height of European imperialism in Africa. Beyond analyzing material culture and printed materials, Coombes examines the nascent field of anthropology and its development as an objective scientific discipline during the Victorian era. Aesthetic treatises about African culture that circulated in Europe degraded the quality of African material culture, and perpetuated a discourse of racial degeneracy (Coombes, 1994, p. 61). Anthropology bridged the popular realm with scientific discourse through museums and exhibitions that rehashed these notions about African racial degeneracy, despite material proof that contradicted them. These institutions functioned under the guise of objective science in order to appeal to racial attitudes within the British public, which projected an image of Africa as primitive, backwards, savage and exotic.
As pedagogical institutions, spectacles fostered nationalism by detracting from the brutality of imperialism and articulating certain notions that validated imperial enterprises, depicting Britain as both humanitarian and pursuing the advancement of knowledge production. Although the spectacles were purportedly grounded in scientific principles, racist tropes permeated them and reified colonial imaginings. Directed towards educating the general public, the Stanley and Africa exhibit focused on the so-called savagery and brutality of African culture. Other exhibits showed hired African actors recreating life in African villages (Coombes, 1994, p. 85). This discourse of authenticity paradoxically presented the reenactments as objective reality. Such exhibits projected British fears of miscegenation and depicted African society as savage, cruel, and sexist (p. 96). Spectacles as well as museums created a consensus about British national identity around the notion of empire. Museums, Coombes asserts, transcended class barriers and became spaces for social interaction open to a wide audience, although the working class did not have agency in such institutions (p. 124). The experiences of workers and Africans remain mute in this narrative.
A history of human exhibitions and popularity in the 1870s that conveys that the West has historically been fascinated by the subaltern Other. Ethnographic exhibits immersed indigenous people in the world of animals. Rothfels argues that Carl Hagenbeck, touted as the founder of the modern zoo as a cultural institution, and others like him grafted human subjects into these shows as living in their natural environments, primitive, ignorant and unknowing of the civilized world. These exhibitions thus were purported to show the “authentic” natural habitat of these African peoples, although clearly there was nothing really authentic about them (Rothfels, 2002, p. 89). Such exhibitions articulate a narrative of European dominance over those on exhibition, who were rendered inferior, weaker and uncivilized. They say very little about the non-European people on display and rather project tropes developed by Europeans about them. Thus, human shows functioned not as a representation of actual nature as purported by organizers, but rather in the representational form Europeans envisioned nature to be. These human shows Rothfels describes articulate the perception that the natives on display were both scientific objects of study and a form of voyeuristic entertainment. The human shows, however, broke down with the illusion of primitivism. Rothfels demonstrates that a shift from exhibiting humans in their natural habitat to non-human animals captured the public’s fascination in a way that sustained the illusion of authenticity that undergirded ethnological display and museum culture. Carl Hagenbeck’s zoo—like his human exhibitions--achieved prominence because of the illusion of the reality they projected as ethnological presentations (Rothfels, 2002, p. 106). While the shows fascinated the general public, anthropological and ethnological backing granted such exhibits scientific validation of authenticity (p. 126). Human exhibitions and the display of cultural artifacts operating as scientific objects of study as well as forms of public entertainment have persisted even in the postcolonial era. As a result, such distorted representations of Africa and African culture have reified popular mythos circulated in public discourses.
Undoing popular mythologies and misconceptions about Africa continue to pose a litany of pedagogical obstacles and challenges. Curtis Keim proffers a concise polemic regarding how the West, especially the Americans, redefine and reinvent Africa in order to fit the grand historical narrative. Museums as didactic cultural institutions underscore how critical representation and discourse are in creating certain perceptions and ideas about distant and foreign cultures. Due to the history of western imperialism in Africa, western discourses sustain an image of Africa as a peripheral, backwards society. Within the context of imperialism, European nations and other western societies—deferring to the the nascent scientific discipline of anthropology--articulated varied discourses of savagery and primitivism regarding their colonial subjects, despite the present of material evidence that contradicted these very discourses. The illusion of that reality bolstered a public consciousness and national identity against an inferior Other. Moreover, these cultural institutions figured prominently in the industrialization and modernization of nations across the globe. Nefarious stereotypes ascribed to Africa and African societies have persisted into the twenty-first century. In order to induce a paradigm shift, cultural representation and discourse must evolve. It is thus unequivocal that this deconstruction process will take many generations to fully manifest itself.


Coombes, A. (1994). Reinventing Africa: Museums, material culture, and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Keim, C. (2009). Mistaking Africa curiosities and inventions of the American mind (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Rothfels, N. (2002). Savages and beasts: the birth of the modern zoo. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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