Nobosudru, the becoming icon of a Mangbetu woman

From the visual image to the materiality of the image

ExhibitionIVAM Centre Julio González

This exhibition explores the development of the photographic image of Nobosudru, a Mangbetu woman, taken in the north-eastern part of the Congo by G. Specht and L. Poirier, who were responsible for the photographic and cinematographic shots of the famous Citroën automobile crossing known as La Croisière Noire (1924-1925). Directed by G. M. Haardt and L. Audoin-Dubreuil, it crossed Africa from Algeria to Cape Town. Very soon, the profile image of Nobosudru with her characteristic headdress, which was only a status marker but was falsely taken as an ethnic sign of all Mangbetu women, became an icon of Black Africa. The use of this image in the most diverse practices and social contexts, as well as its different material supports, all of which are present in the exhibition, led to its formal and semantic mutation from the 1920s to the present day.

The exhibition allows the visitor to see a wealth of documentation from numerous archives and museums, mainly European, as well as private collections: the expedition’s memory albums, the film of La Croisière Noire and the posters in various languages advertising it, the scientific and popular books in which the image was reproduced, the advertising of consumer products, fashion magazines, decorative painting and sculpture, jewellery and costume jewellery, and so on. Uses of this image underpinned by an exoticist point of view in keeping with the colonial period. But this exhibition also shows the paradox that this same image has had an anti-racist political meaning in other contexts, as shown by its propagandistic use in documents of cultural resistance or in some appropriations from contemporary art, including film. That this colonial image continues its journey, when criticism of colonialism abounds, is perhaps explained by an ambivalent attitude that mixes in varying proportions both rejection of that period and a certain melancholy. Through condensation and displacement, mechanisms typical of dreamlike elaboration, Nobosudru remains a symbolic field where, today as yesterday, the expressions of different post-memories compete.

Through a case analysis, this exhibition is situated at the crossroads of different disciplines: visual anthropology, the history of political representations, aesthetics and the pragmatic theory of the image.