Hundreds of thousands of photographs from central Africa circulated as postcards, stereographs and illustrations between 1885, when the region came under the colonial domination of the Belgian crown, France and Portugal, and 1960, when central African countries gained their independence. The images reached viewers around the globe and perpetuated ideas and fictions about African peoples. Many of these images are still being published. Their creators--photographers with diverse backgrounds and agendas--their distributors and consumers imbued them with different meanings, a process that continues even today. This exhibition examines the multiple narratives contained in these images and traces some of the meanings constructed for them over time.

Unless otherwise noted, the photographs in this exhibition are from the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives of the National Museum of African Art, which contains over 280,000 images from Africa. In addition, images came from other institutions and individuals. We would like to thank Pierre Loos of Brussels, Belgium, for lending us exquisite vintage prints and a photographic album by Casimir Zagourski, Ernest Godefroid of Baronville, Belgium, for lending important postcards and the Zagórski family for allowing us to display family photographs. Krzysztof Pluskota, an independent scholar in Lund, Sweden, worked closely with the Zagórski family and researched the life and oeuvre of Casimir Zagourski. We are indebted to him for sharing his findings with us. We also thank the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, Belgium, for permitting the use of several photographs from its collections.

Past and Present Designations

Throughout the history of central Africa, country and place names changed to reflect different political circumstances and agendas. The names common during the time periods when images were taken or captioned appear throughout the exhibition. The following list presents past designations on the left and current ones on the right.

Congo Free State (1885-1908)
Belgian Congo (1908-1960)
The Congo (1960-1971)
Republic of Zaire (1971-1997)
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Today divided into:
Congo Français
(French Congo)
Afrique Équatoriale Française (A.E.F.)
(French Equatorial Africa)
The Central African Republic
The Gabonese Republic (Gabon)
The Republic of Chad
The Republic of the Congo
Portuguese Congo
Now part of the Republic of Angola
The Republic of Rwanda
The Republic of Tanzania

Pictured above
Photography in the Belgian Congo
Unknown photographer
c. 1905, postcard, hand-colored collotype
Published by Delvaux, Huy, c. 1910
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

This hand-colored postcard depicts a typical photographic encounter at the turn of the 20th century. A Western photographer takes a carefully arranged image of an African leader in traditional dress and adornment.

Images from Central Africa || Central African Peoples through the Eyes of Western Photographers || Colonial Photography from a Present-Day Perspective || Depicting Africans || Official Images (1920-1960) || The Image World of Casimir Zagourski (1924-1944) || African Encounters with Photographers || The Kuba || The Mangbetu || The Tutsi || Photographers and their African Patrons

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