“Ils sont pas des hommes”: Conversational Anthropologists at Play
by Tjoa Shze Hui
Of the many witticisms that make up The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one voiced by Picasso really gets under the skin. He says it, as I remember, while loafing around Gertrude Stein’s weekly picture exhibition at the rue de Fleurus, studying the foreigners who have come to pay modernism homage. As yet another batch of Americans arrives, we learn that:
Picasso unaccustomed to the virginal quality of these young men and women used to say of them, ils sont pas des hommes, ils sont pas des femmes ils sont des américains. They are not men, they are not women they are Americans.
This is exactly the sort of pronouncement that makes The Autobiography so old-fashioned and delectable. We like that Gertrude’s Picassos — bold, knowing and exceedingly well travelled — can make categorical claims about what Americans are like in a way that we no longer feel ourselves entitled to. Post-modernism has left us incurably ironic; for us, race has been deconstructed and the notion of cultural genera scattered like chaff to the wind. Consequently the thinking person is loath to let Gertrude’s language of types cross their lips; for them there can be no general American character, only life as individual Americans have chosen to see it.
But as far as Gertrude and her artists are concerned, anthropological maxims remain the crown jewels of educated repartee. After all, it insinuates cultural cache to be able to report that after dinner, an American host will invariably show his guests Japanese prints; that the Germans can grasp method, but have no real sense of organisation. When Gertrude leans over Alice’s shoulder to inform us, winking, that no French person is so poor that they are not constantly taking their pets to the vet, she whispers subtextually that she is privy to the French people’s quaintnesses but nevertheless, above and beyond them all. She is in, but not of, the people.
And how can we fault her for saying so — for excepting herself from this universal language of collectives? She has met a number of geniuses and their wives but she has not, as we have, met Michel Foucault. So we allow her to roost above the faded glamour of the 1920s, rolling out spry judgments and teasing us with tongue-in-cheek certainties. So charmingly, consummately privileged that she is under no ideological compulsion to admit the fact, let alone simper for being so.
While back in Singapore last month, I made a trip down to the National Museum to take in a belated showing of Genesis by Sebastião Sagaldo. And I have to report that it is every bit as sumptuous as the newspapers claim — a slice of the world arrayed elegantly in black and white. Its most popular pictures feature tribal clans unblemished by the dehumanising taint of modernity: bare-chested Camaiurá dancers, Nenet swaddled in furs, and glowering Zo’é whose elongated lower lips are stoppered with wooden plugs.
Savoured without captions of Salgado’s wife and curator, Leila, these pictures give off a sense of agency so strong that it muscles away any hints of cultural fetishism. Tribesmen frequently offer you full eye contact, as if the camera is working in concert with their bodies and not unfeelingly plundering them for visual appeal. Sometimes they pose squarely or scowl at you, or squint as if sizing you up.
Viewed on their own, the images are flush with dialogic autonomy. But throw the captions back into the mix and suddenly, Salgado’s Genesis feels like a throwback to 1920s Europe.
One picture that stood out to me: a wide-angle shot of a man halfway up a durian tree. The picture itself is laden with subtleties — surrounded by the jungle yet conquering it quite routinely for a mid-day snack, the man seems at once mired in nature and its absolute proprietor. In the interpretive space created by Salgado’s lens, the trope of the noble savage is rescripted to restore an unsentimental dignity to the man’s exertions.
These visual cues, however, seem mismatched with a caption that reads: “Agile young men climb gigantic trees… to collect durian, an excellent fruit and a favourite of the Mentawai clan among others”. Instead of a verbal sketch of the tree-climber, what we get is an almost colonial preference for collectives over specifics; that subtextual nudge-and-wink between cultural insiders so reminiscent of Picasso’s quip. There is no mention of the young durian-gatherer per se, only a categorical statement about agile young men in general that leaves one wondering just whom this subject is, apart from a token repository of cultural trademarks.
And then there’s the whole arrangement of Salgado’s photographs, where tribesmen are scattered in clusters among shots of wildlife and terrain. What this does, perhaps unintentionally, is to underscore the eerily zoological slant of Salgado’s curatorial vision: like the animals in his exhibition, people tend to be labeled with collective and generalised statistics that insinuate interchangeability. Sometimes, the same caption is even appended to a whole host of different people without any qualms — as when three separate portraits appear to feature some of “the last women in the world to wear lip plates”, or when two others share the verbal appendage of “Scarification is carried out with sharp stones, knives, hooks or razor blades.”
But is every woman with lip plates the same? Is every scarred body?
Exactly whose souls has Salgado snatched? And is this a fair question to cudgel our brains with, given that Genesis aims to be high art and not some intrepidly democratic platform like the Humans of New York? Salgado, at any rate, would seem to think so — according to him, a “picture is not made by the photographer”, but only good insofar as it represents the intentions of the photographed like “a gift from the person you see”.
This is a belief reflected in the power dynamics of individual photographs but not, I think, in the overall tone that Genesis’s curators have set. For in spite of its photographer’s intentions, Genesis still produces a biting suspicion that Salgado is picturing human beings rather than people — biological units which have escaped the individualising tinctures of modernity and can, therefore, be treated as the generalised symbols of tribalism.
Suffice to say that this aggregating spirit of inquiry is very much out of tune with the photographs themselves; that it brings to mind what Sontag once wrote about the camera as the ideal and acquisitive arm of modern consciousness. To me, at any rate, Genesis‘s curatorial persuasions seem like an enormous pity, given how poorly they frame a photographer who so obviously and eloquently believes in empowering his subjects. At the museum, I looked at his pictures and thought: the tribes are all here, arranged on this wall. But where are the men and the women?
Images reproduced from Genesis by Sebastião Salgado, 2013. Published by Benedikt Taschen Verlag. Copyright (c) 2013 Sebastain Saldgado, and Benedikt Taschen Verlag. The “fair use” of copyrighted materials here is covered by the United States Code Title 17 Section 107.
About the Author:
Tjoa Shze Hui divides her time between Singapore and Oxford, where she reads History and English and writes for the Cherwell newspaper. She has deposited stray thoughts about literature and art in a number of thought collectives, including POSKOD.sg.