There are multiple parts to the process of assessing the aesthetic quality of a photograph. We can first examine its more straightforward qualities: its composition, its color balance, its affective appeal, the characteristics that enable the apparently objective assessment of artistry. We must, however, also examine the artistic gaze; a beautiful photograph can obscure the intentions and epistemic traditions of the artist producing the image(s). The gaze becomes even more subject to scrutiny when the subjects in question are not white and the photographer is a white outsider.
After beginning her career as an actress, Leni Riefenstahl forayed into film direction with Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932, before her collaboration with the Nazi Party as a propagandist. She created, most famously, 1935’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a documentation of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. It is against this backdrop, and within the context of the emergence of postcolonial thought challenging the production and legitimacy of hegemonic European politics and aesthetics, that her work must be considered.
Riefenstahl’s 1973 book, Die Nuba (The Last of the Nuba) (and its 1976 follow-up, Die Nuba von Kau (The People of Kau)), was the result of her nearly two decades spent in central Sudan living amongst the Nuba people. Die Nuba begins with the chronicling of how Riefenstahl came to study the Mesakin Nuba of the Kordofan region in the central part of what is now North Sudan. It is hard to describe it as anything other than the expected dramatics of a white western woman’s Ernest Hemingway-inspired maiden voyage to a seductive Africa. By the time she arrives in Khartoum, as is written in the third person-narrated introduction, “she was already beginning to feel the magic that the Dark Continent had for her,” one clouded by the “apocalyptic element” accompanying her intention to make a film about the Arab slave trade in eastern Africa. The “dramatic baptism” of a car accident during her very first trip to the region intensified “her obsession to become part of Africa.” She had discovered a photograph by a British photographer, George Rodger, which inspired her to train her attention on the Nuba peoples.“That photograph persecuted me,” she writes. She learned all she could about the Nuba, and thus endeavored to be one of the very few Europeans to ever visit their native lands (and the first white woman to be granted special permission by the Sudanese government). “Her task would be to find the Nuba and to make a pictorial record of these people that would be the work of art their beauty and magnificence demanded,” and what resulted was two photographic collections of a “pictorial and factual record, which, in its devotion to the physical magnificence and primal innocence of her adopted people, will perhaps remain unique among the annals of the continent once called Dark.”
The remaining book is a less artistic and more nakedly and intrusively anthropologically illustrated and written rendering of everyday Nuba life. She describes their customs in painstaking detail, painting a careful portrait of their adornments and body modifications—the “[notorious] nudity” that defied and embarrassed the Muslim Sudanese government (a continuation of white western obsession with the Black phallus?), harvest and planting practices, and the cultural centrality of wrestling. Riefenstahl was a notorious perfectionist in her filmmaking and cinematographic habits, a relationship to visual practice that translated into her photographic work—her propaganda works are canonical in the western study of political/politicized filmmaking. The Nuba seemingly could not be further from the propagandist displays of Nazi Aryan splendor from which she tried desperately to self-dissociate after World War II, but her work nevertheless resembled a purely colonial documentation. Her obsessive curiosity did not manifest as a break from the racializing gazes plaguing the continent or the love she claimed to have for these indigenous peoples, but rather an aestheticized continuation of the tradition.
Her photographs, of course, are overwhelmingly of naked Nuba men. One two-page spread in the first chapter “Land and People” shows us the traditional body modifications Nuba men receive. Two large photographs depict the process of cicatrization, a cutting resulting in healed raised scars in some significant shape or design, perhaps more abstract designs or perhaps the shape of a cattle or other animated object of cultural significance. In one full-page photograph, two long-limbed and almost purple, dark-skinned Black men are shown sitting on a rock; one man (who Riefenstahl reveals is named Goggogorende) outlines the designs he desires on his own chest while another man, his hand resting on Goggogorende’s thigh, observes keenly. On the opposing page, Goggogorende’s friend is seen cutting his chest with a sharp bamboo knife, engaging in the rite that exists not only to decorate the boy but to teach young Nuba men resilience by nurturing an ability to endure physical pain. The photograph’s starkness is a contrast through a kind of exoticizing documentation. The two naked men are stunning in their almost unimaginably Black (per the white imaginary) skin’s contrast against the dusty rocky background; there is a decidedly and fascinatingly non-western intimacy in their body language, in a mutual care and participation in a ritual around beauty generally unseen and uncelebrated amongst white men.
The most illuminating part of this book’s intrusion, however, might be her documentation of the Nuba death rituals—“when the spirit life of the Nuba is given its most marked expression”—which are arguably central to any indigenous peoples believing in ancestral honoring or holding animistic beliefs (like my own Zimbabwean Shona heritage). While she describes funerary proceedings as “far from being a private matter” and “the most public event of a man’s life,” what does it mean to be positioned as a far outsider to a particular culture and to globally publicize the transition from life to death to beyond? Regardless of the audience, Nuba funerals amass within the community itself, there is something sacred about cultural privacy and the idea that there are practices, artifacts, and wisdoms intended to exist outside of western consumption. For Riefenstahl to document and publicize this deeply important proceeding to the western world (juxtaposed against her obsessive curiosity to bear witness to these rarely before seen people) speaks, ultimately, to the relationships between white artists and Black subjects (and, perhaps more broadly, white people/gazes/epistemologies’ regard for and objectification of Black men). Though Riefenstahl claims to come to love and care for the Nuba, these sentiments are flattened and subsumed within a colonial aesthetic and praxis she cultivated and maintained during her time serving the Nazi Party.
Her book, of course, was a resounding success. Newsweek called it “deeply romantic – but never romanticized”; and the New York Times’ Eudora Welty praised the book’s “absorbing beauty” and “cumulative power.”
In a note to his grandson in 1970, Rodger wrote that “good photography is based on truth and integrity.” Yet, what is the truth of the visual archive of empire? Who is the arbiter of this truth? Who is ever demanded to demonstrate integrity? To appropriate a question posed by Santu Mofokeng, we, too, must ask: Are these images evidence of the reality of Black/African life or do they serve to validate prevailing images of ‘The African’ in the western world?[note]His original question, prompted by images of 19th and 20th century commissioned studio photographs of smartly dressed Black South Africans, was: “Are these images evidence of mental colonisation or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of ‘The African’ in the western world”?[/note]
Susan Goldberg, the new editor-in-chief of National Geographic, recently penned an editorial that served as a reflexive institutional acknowledgment of and reckoning with the magazine’s role in reinforcing and disseminating racist caricatures of global “others.” “National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized,” writes John Edwin Mason in his own commentary about the magazine’s history within the same issue. “That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.” It is within Mason’s contextualization of this knowledge production, too, that we must revisit and re-evaluate Riefenstahl’s work with the Nuba. Can her striking images be divorced from a colonial episteme or her Nazi-collaborating past when this very work still embodies a fascistic aesthetic that centers the spectacular, the heroic, the dramatic, the “godlike…emblems of physical perfection” per Susan Sontag (as highly aestheticized images of indigenous Africans might appear to the white western sensibilities for whom this book was intended)? This book serves as an example of a particular kind of anti-Black objectification, in which Black bodies simply exist as conduits for white curiosity and redemption and rehabilitation, as dark screens for the projection of white humanitarian values. Forty-five years after the release of this book, and decades into postcolonial interrogations of portrayals of the “other,” Die Nuba is long overdue for the scrutiny it deserves.
Zoé Samudzi is a queer black woman whose work is dedicated to reclaiming and reframing narratives both within the academy and outside of it. Wielding black feminist & womanist epistemologies, she interrogates structural whiteness and theorizes on decolonizing ways of knowing and truth-telling.