African Supermarket

African Supermarket480
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One Essay Response

  1. Akanksha Mehta | 2016 Third Prize Winner says:

    The first thing that came to my mind when I saw Rachel Tanner’s photograph – African Supermarket – was a text by feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe. Enloe (2001) in her seminal text, Bananas Beaches and Bases, argues that women’s roles in global politics have been largely ignored and under-examined. Using the examples of the banana industry in the Caribbean, the tourism industry, and foreign military bases she examines how women’s seemingly personal strategies – in their homes, private lives, domestic experiences – are also deeply political. She theorises that larger sociological processes of globalisation, capitalism, neoliberalism, and labor entwine the personal and the political – and argues that a simple visual such as a gendered advertisement that sells Caribbean bananas and tropical fruit to the US can contain multiple narratives of global importance. To me, her depiction of Carmen Miranda marketing bananas (on the front cover), smiling and fruit-covered, resonates strongly with Rachel’s image in spite of the difference in geographies, histories, lived realities, spatialities, temporalities, and meanings.

    While I do not know the exact context of Rachel’s image, it symbolises the role of the two women/girls in the image, not only as the stereotypical and very gendered providers of meals and groceries in the domestic sphere but also as consumers in the local, regional, and global market, as possible sellers and suppliers of the depicted fruit, as marketers, and as agents and actors in the global processes of labor and consumption. Rachel’s depiction of their presence in the supermarket (rather than the kitchen) pushes this idea further - breaking the binary of what is domestic and what is public, what is personal and what is political, what is in the home and what is in the labor market. It unpacks how sociological processes linked to the economy and politics work and the complexities they entail.

    What also strikes me about this visual is how it turns stereotypes about ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ on its head. As many scholars after Said (1978) have elaborated, colonial and postcolonial Africa has been a dark, dreadful, and barbaric place in the orientalist imagination of the ‘West’. Media as well as other depictions of lives and narratives from the continent are submerged in orientalist tropes depicting poverty, failure, ravaged lands, starving children and crying citizens, uncivilised ‘natives’, savagery, and ‘backwardness.’ Rachel’s image of two young girls, dressed impeccably and even fashionably, smiling broadly and taking pleasure in the moment, looking into the camera with shy grins, engaging, interacting, surrounded not by poverty and starvation but by tropical fruit – full and wholesome food, subverts our imagination of the continent and the narratives of those who live there. It thus, not only serves a scholarly purpose, but also an activist one that challenges our very perception of those who differ from us. It, in effect, becomes a visual of resistance that brings forward a story (or many stories) that presents narratives left out of the ‘Western’ imagination but also dislodges the political sociologies that might depict “one version of history as more true than another”, asserting that “history is more complicated than the stories we tell about it.” (Hemmings, 2011: 15-16)

    Linked to the point above are also the photographer’s reflexivity, ethics, positionality, and agency that ask – How do we choose to represent the subjects of our work? How do we narrate other lives and realities? How do we incorporate the ethics of visual research into our larger disciplines in the social sciences? What is the relationship between “content, social context, and materiality of images?” (Pink, 2003: 183) How do we collaborate visually across disciplines? How do we use visual research in sociology as not only an academic intervention but also an activist one that decolonizes knowledge production and is mindful of the relationship between power and knowledge. Rachel’s photograph- African Supermarket- and her larger legacy serves as a solid starting point to consider these difficult questions and ground these conversations.

    Enloe, C. (2001) Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. California: UC Press
    Hemmings, C. (2011) Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press
    Pink, S. (2003) “Interdisciplinary agendas in visual research: re-situating visual anthropology,” Visual Studies, Vol. 18 (2): 179-192
    Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books