Richard Wright’s African Photographs

“Wright’s Intellectual legacy is especially interesting because it has been so routinely misunderstood.” 1
Paul Gilroy

6. Richard Wright [Kumasi Market], the Gold Coast, 1953, 5 /8 x 7 in. (13 x 17.7 cm) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
In 1953, the year that Richard Wright visited and photographed in Africa, readers and gallery goers in Europe, America, and Africa were unlikely to encounter photographs made by men or women of color. Although, exceptionally, Gordon Parks had been working at Life magazine since 1948, Roy DeCarava was just beginning to make the Harlem photographs that would appear later in Sweet Flypaper of Life and South Africa’s Drum magazine would not employ its star photojournalist Peter Magubane as such until 1955. 2 As well, many histories attest, images in general representing Africans in Africa and diaspora were scarce in mainstream media and carefully managed. Roland Barhtes encountered his now infamous photographic signifier—a Paris Match magazine cover conveying the myth “that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors”—in June 1955; 3 later that summer, Wright’s Dutch friend and translator Margrit de Sabloniére wrote to him of her discovery that, even at a leading anthropology museum, there were “no Ashanti photographs in Holland, not a single one,” a significant circumstance in light of the Netherlands’ centuries-long colonial history in West Africa. 4

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Notes

  1. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993,) 147.
  2. See Maren Stange, Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks (Milan Skira, 2007) and idem, “‘Illusion Complete within Itself’: Roy DeCarava’s Photography,” in Townsend Ludington, ed., A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 279-305.
  3. Rolan Barthes, Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 116. The image of the young soldier is at (view image of young soldier) http:anciensnumeros.parismatch.com/an/search/webSearch/?couverture=1&numero=326&from_web=1. Accessed June 25, 2012.
  4. Margrit de Sabloniére to Richard Wright, August 9, 1955, box 105, folder 1593, Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (hereafter referred to as RWP)

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