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African Visions: the Diary of an African Photographer.

African Visions is full of hallucinations, a book both animated and haunted by the failed promise of colonial fantasies. Photographer Mirella Ricciardi was born in Africa to expatriate parents: her mother, an heiress throwing off French high society in search of bohemian adventure; her father, a penniless exile from fascist Italy between the wars.

Kenya, during the glory days of Britain's Crown colony, was the setting for Ricciardi's improbable childhood, the contradictions of which are best summarized by an innocent childhood picture showing the author and her sister playing dress up in billowy, oversized white silk gowns and painted lips against the backdrop of an encroaching dark forest and mountain skyline. The colonial experience can be likened to this same child's play, reenacting and recreating the luxury of the European home against incongruous wilderness; a conflicting desire to import civilization, while indulging the freedom offered by an unfettered existence on the Dark Continent.

This is just part of the melancholy seeping through this photography collection, where if a picture is worth 1,000 words, the thousands of words offered by way of Ricciardi's "diary" do much to rob the images of any presumed power. Snippets of Ricciardi's inane prose are actually scrawled across many of the photo spreads, making it clear that the true subject is always the photographer's tortured psyche (the guilt and conflict embodied by the white African), and rarely those captured by her lens. Ever referred to monolithically as "the Africans" or sometimes differentiated as "naked Dinka," "naked [Maasai] warriors," and also, inevitably "noble" and "elegant," the only individuals to emerge are the cook "borrowed" from her mother's estate as a companion for photographic safaris, and a young guide who, when he becomes Ricciardi's lover, inspires the musings, "At one with him, I was at one with Africa, an experience which never repeated itself in sheer physical intensity. Making love to him, I felt, was making love to Africa. What did Karen Blixen [author of Out of Africa] know about this, I wondered."

The taboo of colonial sex is often at the heart of many of her images, which often resemble fashion photography. Despite its weaknesses, and the almost quaint nature of her project, African Visions is an important document, unwittingly exposing the naive and anguished relationship between Africa and European settlers.
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Author:Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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