Jessica Stephenson, Curator
During the late 19th-century, a burgeoning market for photographic and sculpted souvenirs emerged along the Loango coast of the African Congo in response to its entry into the world economy and European colonization. These souvenirs took two representational forms: photographic stills that circulated as postcards and carved ivory sculptures packed with figurative imagery.
These souvenir objects were produced for consumption by cultural outsiders: primarily European explorers, missionaries, merchants, and colonial officials seeking mementoes of their experiences in Africa. European photographers and African carvers developed a shared repertoire of staged scenes of daily life. The scenes can be understood today as more akin to dramatic performance and carefully managed display than ethnographic fact. Distinguished by exaggerated gestures and pageantry, the postcards and carved ivory sculptures emphasize visual impact and theatricality.
Sleight of Hand approached these works through the lens of spectacle-- a public performance devised for entertainment. The postcards, as a form of spectacle, supported the colonial narrative of the day. The carved African ivories, in contrast, utilized a strategy of smoke and mirrors. The meaning behind their imagery is often veiled, presenting a subtle critique beneath the surface scenes of interaction. By contextualizing these objects within the arena of spectacle and performance, Sleight of Hand exposed how the souvenir imagery produced by African artisans challenged and subverted the mechanisms of colonial power, while the postcards produced by European photographers served to reinforce and celebrate those structures.
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