A fictional portrait of a national dream

Cristina De Middel self-published book "The Afronauts," revisits the 1960s shortlived, abandoned project by Zambia's government to send the first African astronauts to Mars

From Afronauts.

The Deutsche Börse photography prize is awarded annually since 1996 and has an impressive list of recipients — Jeurgen Teller, Walid Raad, Paul Graham, John Stezaker, to name but a few. But it seems that, although the prize’s shortlist has always been international, the jury has shifted its focus ever so slightly to the ‘global south’ in recent years.  2012’s shortlist featured Pieter Hugo, the South African photographer who was nominated for his publication “Permanent Error” (2011), which documented the sprawling e-waste sites that skirt Accra. The photographs were powerful for they revealed the fallacy of our naive thinking that digital technologies are somehow ethereal. Hugo’s images, cloaked in the thick smoke of burning rubber, immortalize chipped and sharp electronics boards, keyboards caked in dirt, and infinite wires connecting nothing to nowhere, embedded into the mud like electric earthworms. These images question the morality of our digital consumption, and firmly re-instate the material costs into our consciousness. Jim Goldberg’s images won him the prize in 2011. In his Open See exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2010 Goldberg documented the experiences of refugee, immigrant and trafficked populations across the world, creating an ephemeral installation essaying migration and escape. And this year, perhaps following with the theme of a future gone to seed and of escape fantasies, the jury has shortlisted Cristina De Middel for her self-published book The Afronauts.

“In 1964, after gaining independence, Zambia started a space program led by Edward Makuka Nkoloso, sole member of the unheard of National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. The program, whose aim was to send the first African astronauts to Mars, was soon cancelled, becoming no more than an amusing anecdote in the country’s history. In The Afronauts De Middel creates a subjective version of the story engaging with myths and truths. The book is comprised of a series of constructed color photographs, sequenced alongside drawings and reproductions of letters, resulting in a fictional portrait of a national dream.” You can read more about Middel’s motivations for the project here.

The project reminds me of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s project Icarus 13which treated photograph as ‘pliable fiction’ and invented a space mission which cleverly recasts our view of Angola, and Africa more generally, as a source of endless myths both fantastical and speculative. The hoax at the centre of the project (image below) – that Angola had a space mission and built a NASA-style mission complex – appropriates odd buildings in Luanda as the sites for Henda’s derelict future. A Luanda football stadium is the launch pad, an unfinished cinema plays the role of a space observatory, and the spaceship is Neto’s incomplete Russian-built mausoleum.

Middel’s beautifully produced book is a scrapbook of an imagined futurity, which doesn’t seem to inhabit any chronology. Partly staged, partly crudely doctored, partly observation, her photographs are playful and humorous, but introduce a set of imagined circumstances which elude clear categorisation. Part fashion shoot, part cliché? Someone’s flamboyantly dressed arm poses with an elephant. The astronauts are pretending, clearly, but the debris inexplicably piled in a rural setting might have fallen from the sky, or might be the remnants of a broken programme of industry. Space and time contract.

Further Reading

Nigerians in Space

In Deji Olukotun’s novel, a Nigerian NASA scientist — on behalf of all colonized people — wants to return moon rocks that Neil Armstrong brought back to earth.