Many public views may be outdated or incorrect when compared to the reality of the events. This phenomenon applies particularly strongly to social groups, where stereotyping frequently takes place and persists until after it approximates the truth. Often, the reason for this phenomenon is that the people who constitute the social group are not adequately represented in the media. As a result, the people who hold the old opinion inform the public’s view of the group and remove it further from reality based on their misconceptions. Eventually, the differences escalate to a point where people are entirely misinformed about the group’s situation. However, if members of the group are represented in the media, they can show the group in a more realistic light and counteract the narrative. This essay will use historical displays of Africa by Western countries to demonstrate the role of representation in knowledge.
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European Views of Africa
Throughout the 15th century, Europe managed to quell its internal conflicts and begin developing. As a result, its countries began looking outwards and exploring different lands, with Columbus’s discovery of America serving as an example. As a result of encounters with these unfamiliar lands, a Western identity, which defined all other locations as different and alien, began forming1. It persisted throughout the Renaissance and retained its power during the Enlightenment. The period was associated with a view of Europe as advanced and superior, which helped set it apart. Africa, which was located somewhat close to Europe and was relatively undeveloped in most aspects, earned a reputation as “the Dark Continent,” which provided a contrast to Europe’s light2. The view persisted through a substantial period afterward and may continue its existence today.
The 20th century is of particular interest to this essay because it was accompanied by a substantial amount of geopolitical and cultural change. As such, the views on Africa throughout it may have changed substantially, and if so, the factors that have caused it deserves consideration. With the collapse of the colonial structure, countries such as France were not interested in promoting the development of African countries and focused their depictions on handicrafts and other non-industrial practices3. As a result, while representatives of African countries were exposed to the public, they were carefully vetted, and their activities were limited. Residents of African countries were seen as tribal and backward, focused on native crafts and uninterested in European advancements. As a result, the continent was mostly ignored and did not receive much attention beyond an interest in some of its curios.
With that said, some countries were putting effort into the modernization of African countries under their control. While they did so with good intentions and likely improved the lives of many indigenous people, parts of their approach may have shown a bigoted approach. For example, the Portuguese put substantial efforts into studying the supposed savagery of the Manjaco people from an anthropological perspective and documenting their scarification practices4. While colonial authorities were interested in improving the livelihood of their citizens, in part as an effort to secure their hold on the area, they viewed Africans as savages. Their investigations into the culture of the indigenous people focused on shocking and differentiating factors, such as bodily mutilation. Once again, the people who were being studied had no say in how they would be represented, and substantial parts of their culture were omitted as a result.
The views above were largely propagated by governments and supported by academia for whatever reason. These influences may not have affected the public, which was unlikely to interact with colonial governments or anthropologists, directly. However, they were reflected in popular media, such as films, whose makers may have been more interested in exciting the interest of the public than representing reality. To that end, showing something substantially different from the Western norm would be more effective than displaying the similarities between the two cultures. As a result, the arrivals of film crews would often be large events that would result in staged events with paid actors, whether the exchanges happened explicitly or otherwise5. The films would reflect the views of the makers, and the public as a result, further reinforcing the stereotypes.
European stereotypes mostly informed Western views of Africa in the 14th through 20th centuries. People preferred to depict the other continent as backward and stagnant to underline their technological and moral progress and justify their colonization of the area. As time progressed and various sciences such as anthropology and ethnography developed, they were also influenced by these views. Ultimately, until recently, most depictions of Africa focused on its low level of development and the particularly unique aspects of its cultures, such as bodily mutilation. The reason was that Western views of the continent were shaped by non-local actors, who often had no interest in depicting reality. Whenever African people had a chance to be exposed to European audiences, it was under strictly controlled circumstances that prevented them from expressing themselves. If indigenous people had better representation in popular culture, they might have been able to promote a more accurate view of Africa and affect its treatment by the Europeans.
Gable, Eric. “Bad Copies: The Colonial Aesthetic and the Manjaco-Portuguese Encounter.” In Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul Landau and Susan Griffin, 294-319. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
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Hall, Stuart. The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. Web.
Hodeir, Catherine. “Decentering the Gaze at French Colonial Exhibitions.” In Images and Empires: Visibility in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin, 233-252. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Jarosz, Lucy. “Constructing the Dark Continent: Metaphor as Geographic Representation of Africa.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 74, no. 2 (1992): 105-115.
Reynolds, Glenn. Colonial Cinema in Africa: Origins, Images, Audiences. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2015.
- Stuart Hall, The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power, Web.
- Lucy Jarosz, “Constructing the Dark Continent: Metaphor as Geographic Representation of Africa,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 74, no. 2 (1992): 105-115.
- Catherine Hodeir, “Decentering the Gaze at French Colonial Exhibitions,” in Images and Empires: Visibility in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 234-235.
- Eric Gable, “Bad Copies: The Colonial Aesthetic and the Manjaco-Portuguese Encounter,” in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul Landau and Susan Griffin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 294-295.
- Glenn Reynolds, Colonial Cinema in Africa: Origins, Images, Audiences (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2015), 76-77.