Like most non-Africans who possess a larger than ordinary interest in Africans in Africa and out, I’ve been accused of exoticizing Africans. Guilty. But in my life experience, I find Africans do the same, exoticizing Europeans and other “non-blacks,” endowing them with strange powers (such as uncommon ability to accumulate surplus capital) or personal habits that diminish dignity (touching in public?). Now a new art show in Detroit, “Through African Eyes, nicely summarized by Holland Cotter and curated with a certain guileless genius by Nii Quarcoopome, offers a rarified perspective on the penchant for Africans to exoticize the outsiders they’ve encountered over the past century especially. “Even after the initial mystification subsided, Europeans remained at least as exotic to Africans as Africans were to them,” Cotter shrewdly writes about the show, which is dominated by statues my wife would describe as “old colonials.” Opening Sunday at the Detroit Institute of Art, the show is a timely and useful corrective to the linear model of exoticism that often erupts at both appropriate and inappropriate times.
In my living room, I keep an old colonial, a Congolese carving of what is meant to be a cartoon-like Belgian soldier. The statue is recent, one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of retro-colonial representations that Congolese carvers and artists are producing these days. When faced with the conundrum of why we exoticize the other, and are seemingly condemned to do so, I will visit with my Belgian soldier who is dressed in pith helmet, big black boots and sports a pencil moustache. The old soldier says no words but speaks nonetheless.