African Biography

By Rathbone, Richard | Contemporary Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

African Biography


Rathbone, Richard, Contemporary Review


MOST of us are nosy. While we might try to affect a dignified indifference, we long to know what goes on behind closed doors, shut curtains and in other people's minds. The indisputable success of celebrity magazines from Taller to Hello! depends upon curiosity but so, I suspect, does the public's apparent enthusiasm for history. The content of much popular history in all of the media suggests that commissioning editors believe that much of our interest in the lives of others emerges from an inflamed nudge nudge, wink wink prurience rather than a wider intellectual curiosity; a phallus-free programme about Pompeii or a feature about Victorian London without prostitutes are apparently assumed to be unattractive. Some of that nosiness, however, is a function of our more admirable capacity to empathize, an ability whose absence is a convincing symptom of inhumanity. What is it like to be another person, to enjoy or endure the experiences of one of our more interesting contemporaries or an intriguing figure from the past? An unusually inspiring schoolmaster of mine recommended that before embarking upon the reading for an essay, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery could animate the dramatis personae and hence humanise the analysis. Many, many years afterwards, that remains good advice and more easily acted upon with the assistance of the Internet; while searching for the 'mind's construction in the face' can be a fool's errand, it is exciting and sometimes important to have some idea of what historical actors looked like or wished to look like.

I remembered that advice whilst thinking about what struck me most about an important new biography of Olusegun Obasanjo "[Ohasanjo, Nigeria and the World. John Iliffe. James Currey. [pounds sterling] 45.00. 340 pages. ISBN 978-1-84701-027-8]. He was amongst other things Nigeria's President from 1999 to 2007. Apart from an almost intimidating cover photograph of a resolute, un-smiling middle-aged statesman in Yoruba robes, the book is un-illustrated. We are left with no image of what this powerful man looked like in school uniform or on his wedding day. The omission is almost certainly not the fault of the author or of a parsimonious publisher. For a variety of reasons, historians of Africa lack the extensive portraiture that historians of Europe enjoy. That visual privilege is not confined to students of the history of the West. For example, despite the religious objections of part of its historical population to figurative art, the Indian sub-continent not only boasted its own wonderful tradition of portraiture but, from the eighteenth century, also attracted some of the finest commission-hungry, European portrait artists. African artists certainly carved or cast images of rulers. Those of us who saw the British Museum's excellent exhibition of ancient Nigerian art in 2010 learnt that some of these pieces were not only stunning, aesthetically original and very ancient but were almost unnervingly realistic as well as being presumably symbolic; few such masterpieces, however, have survived and even fewer can be positively identified as being images of this or that ruler. This relative lack of portraiture is not confined to the deeper past. Despite the rapid growth of the popular appeal of photography in Africa, a long-lived popularity with its roots in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, there are surprisingly few important historical figures of whom we have any images let alone sequential images before the mid-twentieth century. Although 1 have spent an adult lifetime trying to be an historian of twentieth-century Africa, there are far too many people whose lives I have researched, thought about and then written about whose likenesses have either been lost or have never existed. Many of those who have dominated my research and on whom and with whom I have spent so much time are effectively invisible; even the basic visual information - were they tall or short, fat or thin, bald or hairy - are all too often missing. …

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