On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Of African and Arthurian Kings: Photographs and Temporal Politics October 29, 2014

I have been very intrigued, these past couple of days, by this Monique Todd article on the photographic work of Alfred Weidinger, who has assembled an extensive set of photographs of kings in Africa. This is a fascinating project, and Weidinger has clearly taken great care both to visit a wide sampling of the many areas in which such—dare I say?– royal subjects can be found, and he has also quite carefully prepared for criticisms that he is exoticizing or exploiting his subjects by insisting that they manage the conditions of their own photographic framing. Besides offering glimpses into a quite varied number of styles of presenting the sovereign self, this project offers an opportunity to reflect on how complex the cultural and political landscape can be when it comes to royalty: Weidinger’s portrait series points to an almost dizzying number of monarchies, sometimes tied to areas or to ethnicities, which are to varying degrees integrated into accepted state structures. To put it simply, this photo series highlights how varied are the ways in which political rule can be ritually figured in various parts of Africa.

Right from the moment I began reading the article and quickly moved through the slideshow, I immediately felt ambivalence about my interest in the subject—for a number of reasons. Firstly, as my qualifying points above probably already indicate, I have been conditioned by frequent reading of postcolonial criticism and cultural geography to be wary of Western efforts to transform African others into subjects either of aesthetics or of knowledge. As I said, Weidinger’s methodology of insisting that the king determine how he (and the gender appears to be exclusive in this portrait series) will be framed, insulating the photographer from any charges of staging the photographs—that is, of making the presentation of the king his, rather than the king’s story. Of course, I could easily see many critiquing this as mere window-dressing, arguing that the very project of capturing these images, of linking them in a series, is part and parcel of a larger Western project of controlling colonized others through structures of knowledge—classifying and cataloguing them, with the advanced technologies of digital archiving and photography clearly in tension with the sometimes intensely earthy, low-technology settings in which these kings are depicted.

Another source of my deep unease with my own fascination with this story has involved both temporal politics and the circumstances of my own teaching. It has been clear to me that one reason this article seemed so timely to me was because I have been doing a lot of thinking about kings, sub-kings, and petty kings—indeed, a proliferation of kings that is so extensive that it seems to empty the word of anything resembling practical rule, leaving only the ritual elements highlighted in Weidinger’s photographs. This subject has been directly in my mind due to my reading for the Arthurian Romance course I am teaching. In Malory, there is a bewildering number of kings. Sometimes these kings are associated with clearly recognizable territories (say, King Uriens of North Wales) and sometimes with either obscure or fanciful areas (say, King Leodegrance of Camelarde or King Nentres of Garlot), and sometimes they are dissociated with land entirely (as in the case of the ever-fascinating King with the Hundred Knights). It has always seemed to me that this wide array of kings most likely reflects the complicated politics of feudalism or indeed of any unstable political system based on sub-rulers beholden to their greaters: Lot may be the king in Lothian and Orkney, but he is subject—at least after those civil wars—to the greater King Arthur. Kingship is relative—though its gradations are only open to nobles who have achieved some degree of mastery over a territory.

Even as a nagging critical voice telling me that it was dangerous to compare the simultaneously ancient and fantastical world of Arthurian literature to actual African politics, I was fascinated initially by the seeming comparison to the politics behind the worlds into which Weidinger gives us a photographic glimpse: as Todd relates, there is a complicated array of relationships between various kings, many of whom are associated with ethnic groups or particular areas, and whose prestige and energy can be mobilized by savvy rulers aware of the complicated attachments to ritual notions of kingship. The critical voice haunting me here comes from work such as that of the anthropologist Johannes Fabian (see Time and the Other) or of the medievalist Kathleen Davis (see Periodization and Sovereignty) who have analyzed a temporal politics in which non-Western sites can be marked as somehow ancient or backward—as if to go to these places is to go back in time. Clearly this I one of the risks any viewer of Weidinger’s photographs must take—that being caught up in the various settings for royal portraits may appear throwback, backward—as if the premodern world is a place, rather than a time.

Of course, as I have written of here on this blog, the West is hardly insulated from kingship and its seemingly essential premodernity: as modern as many Europeans like to think of themselves, for example, a strikingly large number of EU polities still have monarchs, with all the attendant ritual that seems to this blogger fundamentally primitive. The desire, if not indeed the need for kingship seems to be a kind of shadow always haunting human culture. As I have written about here before, there is quite clearly something deeply unseemly in a Westerner seeking to carve out kingship in an African space. I wonder if our own discomfort with the cultural and historical insensitivity of the would-be North Sudanese princess-maker is deeply akin to the feelings of discomfort we might feel in dwelling on the fascinating photographs collected by Weidinger—and whether this guilt is itself not itself a sign of the seeming inescapability of imperialist history. Thinking about how I am thinking about these photographs: this series seems to force us to consider our own frame, so indeed it seems already to have done some work towards avoiding pure objectification of these royal individuals.