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African Postcards Still Send A Message

african postcard Edmond Fortier Wolof girlAt the Museum of African Art, Images Deliver Reminder of Innocence Found, and Exploited

181. Senegal - Jeune fille du Cayor [Young girl of Cayor]
Wolof peoples, Senegal
Photograph by Edmond Fortier, ca. 1910
Fortier Postcard Collection
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution
Did you know that there are 16,000 postcards in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art?

They're something of a secret. They're not up on the walls but in plastic sleeves in binders in the archives, which are deep in the museum. Anyone can look at them, but first you have to call and set up an appointment, and then you get to see too many pictures to absorb.

Dozens of old postcards, then scores of them, then hundreds, small photographs of Africa, black-and-white, or sepia, many stuck with stamps, addressed and mailed from the colonies. Looked at in big bunches, one after another, they leave memories that sting.

Open by appointment, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. -- 4 p.m.

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
MRC 708
Washington, DC 20013-7012
202.357.4879 (fax)


National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20560

> read also Eliot Elisofon

By Paul Richard found at The Washington Post Sunday, November 26, 2006; N01

They aren't the sort of pictures one generally expects to find in art museums on the Mall. They aren't rare or handmade or transcendent or anything like that; they're middle-brow, faddish and cheap. I'm glad they're there.

They aren't worth much. In antiques malls, where they're sold from shoeboxes, early cards like these cost a few dollars apiece. There are lots of them around. They're not great art; they're products of the international postcard craze.

The craze began in the 1890s, when stiff cards without envelopes could first be mailed for less cost than letters, then really took off in 1902, when divided backs (half for the message, half for the address) were first permitted in the mail, and then fizzled before World War II, which means it largely coincided with African colonialism's turbulent finale.

The cards in the museum show a bygone time, and a bygone way of thinking about Africa. They're drenched in the colonial, and their innocence is brutal.

Some are merely souvenirs of this river port or that one. Others grab attention in more aggressive ways: They remind you of your duty, or cry out for your pity, or feed your curiosity, or manipulate your lust.

If you telephone the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives -- 202-633-4690 -- and get your appointment, and spend a day with postcards, this is what you'll see:

Africa. The people of the continent, their necklaces and beads, their hairdos and their scars, headdresses and masks, fetishes and shrines. Waterfalls and termite mounds. The tusks of many elephants. White hunters with dead leopards. Bare breasts, grass huts, drums.

In the boom days of the postcard vogue, palm-size photographs like these were sold all over Europe, to women in particular, who collected them assiduously, inserted them in albums and showed them to their friends.

A postage stamp from far away, from French Equatorial Africa or the Belgian Congo, stuck right there on the photograph instead of on the back, made your postcard more exotic.

Postcard emporiums opened; postcard clubs were formed.

In the cards in the museum, plotlines reoccur. There are dangers in the jungle (rapids, wild beasts) and hideous diseases (leprosy, elephantiasis), but the wheels of commerce turn (piled bales of rubber), and the civilizing mission progresses (new one-room schools with Bibles), and the colonial administration functions as it should (town militia, verandas, flagpoles, lawns).

Often lounging in the corner are sunburned Europeans who wear their pith helmets like crowns.

Stories thrive on opposition. The naked and the clothed, the barbaric and the civilized, confront each other often in the cards. Stories also thrive on beauty. Young African women pose like nymphs in old French art.

And then there are all those portraits, which are not really portraits, not of individuals; they're specimens of types -- the Ubangi with his lip-plugs, the tall, high-leaping Tutsi, the Gombe, the Mangbetu. Especially the Mangbetu. Because their elongated skulls and conical coiffure made them irresistible, the Mangbetu of the Congo were photographed incessantly. Elisabeth, queen of the Belgians, came to see and shoot pictures of them in 1928.

This may be Africa. But it isn't African art. The cards in the museum, which were printed back in Europe on engine-driven presses and carried across oceans on engine-driven ships, are Western to the core.

Today they often jar. But they deepen the museum. They change the institution by the very fact they're there.

* * *

This is how they change the African museum, which, like Western art museums, shows its precious objects in spotless spotlit cases, but, unlike Western art museums, confronts you with a chasm, a gulf of incomprehension, when you step through the door.

You don't know what you're looking at.

The headdresses and masks, wonders to behold, may sing out to your eye, but when you start to ask them questions, they go mute. Watch how they go blurry when you try to trace them back through time.

Here old cards can help. They might show a mask in use, or a figurine in situ, or a headdress being worn, and they're dense with information. Once you've seen a lot of postcards, the memories they leave behind begin to fill that gap.

No wonder the museum has been collecting photographs of Africa ever since it opened in a Capitol Hill townhouse in 1964. The founder, Warren M. Robbins, assembled several hundred. Many, many more -- 50,000 black-and-whites, 30,000 color transparencies -- were bequeathed by Eliot Elisofon, the Life magazine photographer, in 1973. The African Museum owns 300,000 now.

Many of Elisofon's are modern and in color. The old postcards point you backward: Africa the way it looked -- to Westerners seeing it for the first time.

Before there had been only words -- Rudyard Kipling's, H. Rider Haggard's, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" -- and now and then a painting, or an etching in a travel book, or a sketch of a giraffe. But now, all of a sudden, there were postcards in profusion. Because their numbers overwhelmed, their impact was enormous. A century ago photographs from Africa were like photographs from Mars.

Pablo Picasso, in Paris, wasn't nudged toward cubism just by looking at African carvings. There weren't a lot in France. The carvings he examined were mostly those in postcards.

Everybody saw them. Together they constructed the thought-picture of Africa that filled the public mind. Today we share another perception (Darfur and Somalia, machine guns and machetes) that's as loaded with assumptions, and as incomplete. We get it from the news. Old postcards were its start.

The cards in the museum are CNN in embryo. The first blitz of the image world flickers in their swarm.

Here's another reason for their presence. Being Western pictures, they open up a picture realm, dated and explicit, in which scholarship can roam.

At the African museum, Christraud M. Geary was that broad realm's chief explorer. She put on postcard exhibitions, issued publications and helped identify photographers previously obscure. The 16,000 postcards in the African museum are largely there because of her.

Geary ran the archives from 1990 to 2003 (she has since become a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). Her office had no windows. She didn't seem to notice. Often I would see her there with her notebook and her lamp and her magnifying glass rapt among the postcards she was busily collecting, mapping them in her mind.

The collection clearly bears her stamp, as it were, but not hers alone. It also bears that of Stephen Grant, who began collecting postcards abroad in his 20 years as a USAID Foreign Service officer.

Most envoys carry business cards. Grant preferred to offer postcards. He'd assemble them in batches while preparing for assignments. Then, on bus trips across Egypt, or on rainy days in Dakar, he'd pull them from his knapsack and pass them around. His postcards were an icebreaker -- they got the whole bus talking and strengthened his connection to the people and the past of wherever it was he was.

Six thousand early postcards in the African museum -- of Egypt, Ivory Coast and Guinea -- are gifts from Stephen Grant.

Some are hard to look at now. Forgetting them is also hard.

The obviously great sculptures in the African museum -- those mute, mysterious objects -- aren't about colonialism. They're more about the cultures, the gods and metaphysics that the conquerors of Africa disturbed and dispersed. Once you've seen the postcards, memories of them will buzz your head like flies.

The postcards in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, may be seen Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment. Call 202-633-4690 or e-mail elisofonarchives AT

The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art is a research and reference center with over 300,000 still photographic images documenting the arts, peoples and history of Africa over the past 120 years. 

Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973) was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker. 

He created an enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1973. Mr. Elisofon bequeathed to the museum his African materials, which included more than 50,000 black-and-white photographs and 30,000 color transparencies. The Archives has since added to its holdings important and varied collections from widely recognized photographers.

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