An art photographer’s striking reimagining of Zambia’s unusual effort to launch a space program.
The physical book of The Afronauts caused a sensation in the art world when it was published in 2012; copies currently sell for upward of $4,500. The appeal is obvious: Taking her cue from an article about a schoolteacher’s attempt to enter Africa into the space race in the early ’60s (he was “certain Mars is populated by primitive natives,” he wrote in a newspaper article), De Middel imagines scenes from the training program in ways that address African folklore, Western condescension and romantic notions of space travel. A man is shown in a flight suit with the stereotypical frilled accessories of a “witch doctor”; a colorful but ramshackle miniature rocket is perched in a field, noble but nonfunctioning; a clichéd space alien rests on an examining table; an elephant nuzzles the oversized, bulbous, opaque space helmet of a trainee. (A diagram shows the afronaut’s space gear, including a “coconut water tank.”) De Middel’s photographs, drawings and manipulated news images elegantly capture a sense of wonder and a sense of futility simultaneously; the images’ bleached-out, Instagram-ish palette feels appropriately archival, the stuff of neglected history, but the game-for-anything postures of the would-be astronauts evoke the feeling of Sputnik and Apollo launches. (Aren’t all such photos always a bit propagandistic? Doesn’t spaceflight reflect a primal urge, no matter who’s doing it?) On a technical level, the app asks the user to do a little clumsy hunting around in a large image of stars to find the portal into the images, but the images themselves are well-displayed and retain their resolution with pinch-to-zoom gestures.
Brief but worth lingering on; though the app is wordless and there are only 40 photos, its beguiling imagery is consistently thought-provoking. (Requires iPad 2 and above.)