Deepest Darkest Africa

The Technological Reproduction of Racial Imaginaries by Katie Vann

In my first term studying History of Design at the RCA/V&A, I chose to write about a Victorian print produced by the Electric Lighting company, Woodhouse and Rawson in 1893, entitled ‘What is Wanted in Darkest Africa is the Electric Light’. To coincide with Black History month in the USA and Canada, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on what I found out about this object during my research and how the circulation of printed media was able to create and reify colonial racial imaginaries.

In February 2016, the students on the RCA/V&A History of Design programme organised an exhibition to reinterpret the objects we had written about, showcasing our exhibits in ‘Reimagining Objects’, an installation in the Hockey Gallery at the RCA.

‘Raciailising Ephemera’, Author’s ‘Reimagining Objects’ Exhibit, 2016, Hockey Gallery, The Royal College of Art

For this exhibition, I wanted to explore the racial overtones of the ‘What is wanted in Darkest Africa is the Electric Light’ print. When starting out thinking about how I would display this object in the Hockney Gallery, it became apparent that I was dealing with an object that had the potential to offend or cause controversy. The method in which I displayed my object thus referenced our contemporary unease with racial subject matters, placing it in a box hidden from view.

The outside of the box was painted white and the inside black to reflect the ‘white’/’dark’ racial construct that the object references. A hole was drilled into the side of the box that the viewer looked through in order to see the print. A light switch was fitted to the side of the box, which forced the user to bring light to ‘Darkest Africa’. To the casual observer of our Reimagining Objects Exhibition, this object remained controversial. However, I believe that instead of merely dismissing it as a relic of the past, it is necessary to explore where the racial constructs guiding the object’s imagery originate from.

The nineteenth century printing boom facilitated the outgrowth of racial ideologies into the material world. In 1919 the V&A purchased a collection of eight hundred and ninety seven pictorial advertisements, paying only seven pounds for the lot. The collection comprised of posters, show cards and magazine advertisements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ‘Darkest Africa’ print was one of these ephemeral advertisements.

The increase in the manufacture of commodities in late nineteenth century society shaped a London dominated by the circulation of printed materials. This sudden growth in printing was tied to the expansion of trade and industry, where large firms used printed media to identify, describe, and advertise their products to the masses. As such, this print’s racial overtones must be placed within the contexts of colonialism, imperial expansion and scientific classification in which it was created, in order to decode what it is referencing.

Originating in the mid-eighteenth century, by the late eighteenth century theories linking climate and skin colour eventually gave way to biological determinism. By the 1830s James Cowles Prichard had popularised the idea that distinctions between external characteristics, such as hair and skin colour, marked the character of internal constitutions. [1] Theories like Prichard’s became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century with companies such as Pear’s Soap producing advertisements that directly capitalised on the connotations of cleanliness as whiteness. These theories all contributed to shaping a context in which Woodhouse and Rawson print was produced.

Edward Said suggested that the Orient is ‘a European invention and place of fantasy’. [2] As such, ideas about the Orient are shaped by literature generated in the metropole that generates a discourse pinning East against West. For Said, Orientalism says less about the Orient and more about the culture that produces it. Orientalism is thus a system of ideas generated from a scholarship of mutually referencing texts. Similarly, the V&A’s Woodhouse and Rawson trade card can be seen to belong to a material system of knowledge that references and reinforces particular ideologies. Far from simply creating fictions, these racial prints had tangible physical effects capable of both producing and reinforcing racist ideologies.

Perhaps of all of the objects in the Reimagining Objects 2016 Exhibition, the Woodhouse and Rawson trade card highlighted most pertinently the disconnect that occurs when an object is removed from its contexts of production and consumption. Although controversial, objects like this can highlight how racist ideologies are manufactured and spread through printed media.

1. Augstein, Hannah Franziska, ‘Introduction’ in Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760-1850, ed. by Augstein, Hannah Franziska, 1stedn (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996) p. XXV
2. Said, Edward, Orientalism, 18 edn (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p.1

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