Images aren’t neutral, nor are they static. They tell us stories and they shape our perceptions and expectations. Over time, like the images, these perceptions change. A selection of 24 postcards sent from Africa to Tarboro, N.C., from 1906 to 1913 go on view at the NCMA on February 16. This generous loan is complemented by the recent donation of two South African headrests and a snuff container by the same North Carolina family.
Beit Street—Doornfontein, South Africa, Mailed to Tarboro, N.C., October 8, 1909
Selection of postcards collected by Marcus Milton Bridgers (1868–1935), circa 1897–1913. Bridgers lived in the Mpumalanga province (formerly Eastern Transvaal), South Africa, from 1897 to 1905, and then traveled up the eastern coast of Africa all the way into Egypt.
On the back the card reads: “End of the country to the other to find water to put it in, he intended to use it on the vaal river but it was not practical, I think he finally carried it to Delegoa Bay banking that boat around cost him an enormous sum and it was a dead loss. That was before there was an artificial lake in the Transvaal.”
Tsonga-Shangane artist, South Africa, Headrest (xikhigelo), circa 1875–1905, wood, Gift of Nancy Battle Foster
Marcus Milton Bridgers (1868–1935) was a native of Tarboro, N.C. Drawn to the South African Gold Rush, he likely collected this headrest in Eureka City, Eastern Transvaal (present-day Mpumalanga province), or during his travels to or from this location. Eureka City, as the name implies, was a boomtown, founded in 1884. Similar documented headrests were sold directly to white travelers or businesspeople in South Africa during the late 19th century and at this time only, so this may have been a type of headrest made specifically for sale to foreigners flooding the region in search of gold.
Like postcards, these headrests and snuff containers were often collected to commemorate European or American travels to Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries, as they were small and easily placed in suitcases and carried back from travels abroad. Though diminutive and practical, they were exquisitely carved, and this beauty communicated their importance to those who owned and encountered them—first in Africa, and then in the West. Together the postcards, headrests, and snuff container help us form a (postdated) picture of what outsiders may have thought about and collected from Africa during the early 20th century—what stories they told about Africans—and how pictures from this time helped to shape these impressions.
Animal Series III, Rhinoceros, Mailed to Tarboro, N.C., February 26, 1910. On the back the card reads: “These animals so far as I am aware have not been found around here in recent times altho their near relatives the ‘hipo’s’ are to be found near today (at Komatie Poort in the river). Your Bro M.”
During the 16th through the 18th centuries, Africa was understood as a continent of great wealth, kingdoms, and as a center of civilization and learning. However, from the 19th century onward, a distinct shift in Western rhetoric, and therefore perceptions, occurred and paved the way to colonialism. In particular, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 triggered a “scramble for Africa” by various colonial powers that sought to extract the continent’s rich resources.
Africa was misrepresented as a place of primitives in need of ‘civilizing’ and ‘saving.’ Some postcards portrayed glum Africans at work using indigenous techniques and wearing little clothing. Others depicted the ‘success’ of the colonial project by showing mining operations, crisp clean streets, schools, and law courts built by colonial governments.
General View Crushing Mills and Cyanide Works, Sheba G. M. Coy, Barberton, Transvaal, Mailed to Tarboro, N.C., July 8, 1909. On the back the card reads: “This is a very good picture of a part of the Sheba property. At the right you will see three long narrow houses the lower one which is a little wider is the boarding house proper, it contains a large dining room. I live in the end room of the middle house. I put a dot over it so you could tell it better. Yours, M. M. B.”
Driven by primarily European images, like postcards, as well as written accounts and travelogues, Africa was misrepresented as a place of savage primitives in need of “civilizing” and “saving.” Many of these portrayed (and probably staged) glum Africans at work using indigenous techniques and wearing little clothing. Captioned as “natives” doing “such-and-such” activity, they offered little to no historic information. The image was meant to act as metonym and speak for the whole. Western images during this time also depicted the continent’s natural beauty and exotic animals, further fueling curiosity and romanticism, however fantastical and incorrect the images may have been. Still others depicted the “success” of the civilizing, or colonial, project by showing mining operations, crisp clean streets, schools, and law courts built by colonial governments. All merged together to prove that colonialism was the best course of action, and to encourage public support of colonial interventions.
Natives Transporting Water, Port Sudan, Mailed to Tarboro, N.C., 1913. On the back the card reads: “There is not much to see in Port Sudan but it is well worth seeing once or twice. There are lots of camels around outside of the town but not many in it.”
How do the postcard images and written inscriptions reflect American perceptions of Africa at that time? What themes emerge and how might perceptions of Africa held at this time be different today? Visit this new mini-exhibition in the African galleries of the NCMA’s East Building and let us know your thoughts!
Typical South Africa, Native Sledge, early 20th century