By Kristine Jordan
Fifty-eight years ago, the Malagasy Republic was declared an autonomous state within an association of countries known as the French Community. Much like other nations that fought for independence well into the second half of the 20th century, elements of colonial power dynamics are evident in Madagascar’s modern cultural productions. Using images of these cultural productions and printed archives from Africa’s colonial past, artist Malala Andrialavidrazana creates shifts in perspectives. Her latest collection is Figures, a series of photomontages that act as alternative, reframed histories. It is currently in exhibit at Le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Le Havre, France.
Andrialavidrazana explores barriers and cross-cultural interactions through architecture, photography, and various forms of visual art across Africa and Europe. Inspired by her Malagasy roots, French education, and a lifetime of traveling, Andrialavidrazana examines the cultural movements of cosmopolitan environments impacted by the remnants of imperial structures. Influenced by the concept of territory, each piece in Figures is like a collage of colonial cultural productions across generations. Andrialavidrazana creates a symphony of images composed with cartography, bank notes, album covers, and products of globalization.
On her upbringing in 1970s Madagascar, Andrialavidrazana says, “I did not have much of an idea of what the world looked like outside of my native island … There were very few sources of information, and I remember words such as ‘borders’ and ‘frontiers’ could not mean much to me.” Conceived from memories of her younger self’s understanding of the world through an antique globe, the series Figures disorients geographic and cultural divides.
Working with 19th century maps and atlases, originally commissioned by colonial powers to legitimize settlements and border shifts, Andrialavidrazana reclaims notions of domain and territory. She explains, “By changing the way of introducing these raw materials to the public, their original functions are inevitably altered … this change allows the viewers to analyze the documents according to their own experiences or conditions. In fact, the notion of perspective is relevant to question and understand our current social structures.”
Just as the cartographic imagery questions concepts of territory and borders, symbols of capitalism reframe the economic domination of Africa. Andrialavidrazana describes the icons taken from bank notes as representative of “ideologies driven by consecutive leaders in every state, while emphasizing fantasized vision of faraway countries,” and a means of economic propaganda from imperial powers. The superimposition of this propaganda alongside maps expresses the links between capitalism and territory.
“Der Südliche Gestirnte Himmel vs Planiglob der Antipoden” layers two variant world maps from 1816. Disturbing the Western and Eastern hemispheres, the alignment of these two perspectives creates an unusual view of continental proportions and space. A pattern from Swedish currency, the krona, references political neutrality in armed conflicts. The reverse image of the U.S. seal towers over the globe. Taken from the most common bill in circulation, the one-dollar bill, Andrialavidrazana uses the image as a reminder of current economic control. A Zambian fish eagle expresses the country’s fiscal endurance, as its economy has remained relatively stable. The image of a Salt March is a reminder of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India.
As globalization becomes less territorial and more cultural, Andrialavidrazana speaks to how modes of exploration change: “The 21st century’s discoveries should reflect positive engagements, in a society more respectful for each other. And I think it is important that people start to learn who they are, and what makes them different or similar, in order to communicate with better mutual understanding.”
Maintaining the constructed borders of an 1862 French discovery map, Andrialavidrazana uses the maritime spaces to construct a scene that challenges the shifting nature of exploration in “Le Monde Principales Découvertes.” Starting with the 19th century framework of domination by discovery, this piece mixes animal imagery with ties to several world religions and tribal beliefs. Certain symbols share cross-cultural importance, such as the cassava leaves, a staple crop in Latin America that became one of the largest food source in Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. The plant is now a powerful symbol of identity.
Figures also incorporates European-produced images of indigenous peoples created so colonizers could better understand their subjects. When discussing the anthropological studies that resulted in these images, Andrialavidrazana says, “Perceptions were considerably influenced by preconceived ideas, so there were few humanized dimensions in the [19th century anthropology] portraitures. Sadly, African women’s representation is still fuelled by retrograde prejudices in the present time.”
By reworking images based on archaic misunderstandings, Andrialavidrazana allows the viewer to recontextualize these depictions. Her piece “Natural History of Mankind,” for example, presents familiar female figures as guardians of cultural heritage and mediators between governing bodies. These images act as a counter to the 19th century ethnographic map of Africa they encircle.
Even as still images, the collection is filled with a sense of movement. The art expresses multilayered tensions between movements of knowledge and shifts of power, projecting Andrialavidrazana’s reflections on the circulation and uncertainty of information. Through the deconstruction and reconstruction of these products of globalization, Figures questions the way we piece together what we think we know about world culture and history.
Kristine Jordan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Images courtesy of Malala Andrialavidrazana]