King's College London
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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

Indigenous women

Two photographs showing images of women from a typescript report on a journey through the Kalahari. One is a single portrait and the other is a group portraitTwo photographs showing images of women from a typescript report on a journey through the KalahariIn his scathing critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness (1899) one of Chinua Achebe’s main arguments relates to how Conrad withdrew agency from the few indigenous women depicted in his famous work. 

Achebe highlights one episode where the protagonist Marlowe described an encounter with an indigenous woman: ‘She stood savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent…. she stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself.’

In comparison to the female European characters in the book, Conrad removes her agency whilst likening her to the surrounding environment.

Colonial settlers and administrators had a particular fascination with female indigenes, which was reflected in their photographic representations of the indigenous population. Like Conrad’s, however, these depictions often did not convey the humanity of their subjects.

In many photographs of the indigenous population, the subjects are naked, far from reflecting European ideas on modesty and respectability.

Philippa Levine has highlighted the colonists’ fascination with the indigenous naked body. She evidences how any absence of clothing was deemed to be representative of a ‘primitive state of nature.’ In other words, lacking ‘civilisation.’

Women were understood to have a particular lack of shame, despite sharing a degree of nakedness with their male counterparts. Bare breasts were said to reflect an inappropriate promiscuity, rather than the practicalities of not overburdening themselves with clothing in hotter climates.

Discussions of indigenous nakedness foreshadowed blunt descriptions of indigenes’ physical features. Sir Bede Clifford, during his journey across the Kalahari Desert, consistently commented on the nakedness and bodies of those he encountered. About one mother with child he remarked ‘apart from her flattened nose and a grotesquely inflated abdomen she is well formed … I enquired whether I might presume from her figure that she hoped shortly to make a further contribution to the effectual occupation of our vast desert spaces.’

Photograph of a group of Tucopian women in their villageTucopian womenThe equation of nakedness with lesser status was matched by the dismissiveness of Clifford. Moreover, Clifford claims co-ownership of the ‘desert space,’ he is travelling through, despite being the first European to complete the journey.

Pacific islanders, like those women in the photograph reproduced to the right from the volcanic island of Tucopia, (Tikopia), located in the South Pacific Ocean, were similarly photographed naked from the waist up, in part to restate and reassert ideas of British (and European) self-conceived superiority.

Link to King's College London catalogue records:

Sir Bede Clifford. Report on a journey by motor transport from Mahalapye through the Kalahari desert. [Pretoria: Government Printing and Stationery Office], 1928

RH Garvey. Report of a visit to Tucopia, 1932

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