Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare

by Anna Cuciurean-Zapan

After looking at the eye-opening film photographs at the Istituto Agronomico Oltremare, one of the clearest ideas that emerged for me was the relationship between the colonized and colonizers; especially the domination of African women by Italian men. The portrayal of African women through Italian photography showed the dehumanization and animalization processes that were emblematic of the European colonial era. Both the processes of dehumanization and animalization remove the most fundamental human rights from the Italian colonies. Dehumanization is the process of depriving a person or group of people of human qualities. Animalization is depicting someone as having animal like characteristics or actions which labels someone as less than human. They both deprive a person or group of people of their humanity and label them as something completely worthless, as least worthless enough to receive no empathy whatsoever.

Italians did their best to continuously impose the fact that Africans were different from Europeans; that they were savages, uncivilized and could never be as smart or advanced as them. By only taking photographs of women in natural or work environments, photographers set up the colonial narrative to be one of forced labor and inhuman conditions. These women are constantly surrounded by the labor they were doing, and never shown in a home or safe space environment. This attaches the idea of labor and nothing more to a person, and in turn, dehumanizes the colonized.

The way in which the film pictures were taken of the environment in the colonies prove how Italians simply focus on the economic value they could extract from the colonies. The colonized were extorted for their quantitative value by Italians and not given any qualitative value whatsoever. Wide angle and far away shots emphasize the fixation upon the natural landscape and its provisions instead of on the people living in it. This also further compares Africans to animals, which can be seen in the comparison between two photographs, where women and men and animals are both seen in a river, living in a state of cohabitation. By taking photos of the colonized people with animals, the Italians were further enforcing the view that they saw Africans as animals.

Women were typically photographed half naked/nude with displeased dispositions and sickly/submissive body language in nature or work-related environments or from behind or so far away you can barely tell they are in the shot. This commodification of the black body is evident in the way African women were only photographed in hard labor conditions or in situations where the focus of the image is on their bodies. What’s important to the Italians is what these women provide, not who they are. Women were just objects for men to use at their discretion without any concern for how it harms them.

The evident contrast between the work conditions of the white, European men and the dark skinned, African men could be seen in two similarly set up photographs. The white man on is in a dominant position, standing next to the crops that give him his economic privilege. Meanwhile, the person in the other photograph is in a hunched position, and the image is shot at an angle that makes them appear to be closer to the ground and therefore more connected and closer with nature. These pictures help show the social hierarchy of the colonies, where the white man is on top and the colonized are at the bottom, with the women pushed to the absolute bottom. One picture shows the way in which Italians imposed themselves on the people they colonized. This film shows a European car driving through the forest in Africa. The contrast between the forest and the European car is symbolic of the way Italians inserted themselves into the African way of life, without any means of explanation. How it was so easy for Italians to completely disrupt the peaceful way of life for the colonies.

Organizations like the Black Archive Alliance open the conversation for long overdue reparations to be made. Continued historical research through methods like photography will help the country of Italy start to acknowledge the injustices done to the African colonies and develop a more meaningful, in depth analysis of the colonial past they so often deny and hide.