The Afronauts – a Zambian space odyssey

The Afronauts, a photo book by Spanish photojournalist turned artist Christina de Middel, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Deutsche Börse photography prize for 2013. The book consists of photographs, letters, maps and drawings — footnotes, found and fictionalised — which take as their launching pad the fantastical plans of a Zambian teacher and mayoral candidate, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, for his country to overtake the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s space race.

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Little is known of Nkoloso, who declared to the Lusaka Times in 1964: “We’re going to Mars with a space girl, two cats and a missionary.” The missionary was given strict instructions not to foist Christianity on the “primitive natives” Nkoloso believed resided on Mars. Although never taken seriously by the Zambian government, Nkoloso had hoped to launch his initial rocket to coincide with the Zambian Independence ceremony of 1964.

However, when financial support from the United Nations was not forthcoming and the 17-year-old space girl became pregnant and returned to her village, his Afronauts disappeared without a trace. And so De Middel conjures up an imagined series of images of what a Zambian space mission might have looked like.

After two decades in photojournalism, including time spent in war zones and working with various non-governmental organisations, De Middel admits to finding herself disillusioned by the often predetermined visions of “truth” that reigned supreme.

“Truth is not given directly … but [in photojournalism] I know it’s going to be a double spread or it’s going to be vertical and I already know what headline the journalist is going to use and I am going to find the picture that best fits that space. So I already know the picture for that story,” she says.

Stumbling on the story of the Zambian space mission offered an alternative to pictures of war and famine. It was a tale of “what ifs” that opened up myriad possibilities for thinking about Africa.

De Middel claims no special knowledge or authority either on Africa or space travel. “I have never been to space; and I have only been to Africa once — but I can tell a story. So I think I can tell a story about an African space programme,” she says over lattés in Fulham, neatly sidestepping the minefield of African cultural representation.

Playing games
It is the viewers’ desire to make sense of the photographs and documents as a coherent narrative — to believe in the story despite the illusory nature of so many of the scenes — that contributes to the overall success of the project. De Middel sees the perceptions and expectations of the viewer as a “playground” for her own explorations of meaning-making.

A discarded oil drum floating in an Italian lake, when turned upside down, appears to be a levitating spaceship. In another picture, dead mosquitoes blotted against a motel wall become a grainy approximation of the constellation Ursa Major. With a touch of basic Photoshopping, it appears as a portal to this strange space safari … an astronomical Rorschach test.

“If you spend enough time with the book, you start to see the games,” she explains, “but even with this book, with these images, people ask me: How much time did you spend in Zambia? I tell them, I was not in Zambia in 1964; I was not even born in 1964!” The freedom to explore a story in an unexpected way is the key to accessing a different kind of truth. “I love that,” she confesses. “Telling stories that really happened, but in a different way that questions audiences about what images they consume.”

The series is a combination of the staged and the serendipitous. A cropped photograph of rays for sale in a fish market takes on an extra­terrestrial cast and the blurred close-up of an elephant’s trunk becomes a curiously threatening probe. A small cloud floating against an otherwise clear blue sky in Nevada’s Death Valley begins to resemble a UFO … the truth is out there.

The photographs also travel through time materially. Their vintage look locates them simultaneously in the 1960s and in the contemporary cult of photographic filtering apps.

De Middel took her cue from her parents’ pictures from the 1960s, which were square with rounded corners, “but afterwards I realised that I was playing a game with another debate in photojournalism, which was the use of Instagram and Hipstamatic to report contemporary issues and wars. So it adds a layer.”

Telling stories
De Middel spent a year shooting The Afronauts and another year working on and promoting the book, which she self-published and which is already sold out. Some images were taken in Senegal during her only visit to sub-Saharan Africa, the rest are from Spain, Italy, the United States, Israel and Palestine, where De Middel had been working with the Red Cross.

Alongside repurposing existing images from her archive, De Middel did four shoots “like a movie maker would do, looking for locations and doing the costumes … I studied fine arts and focused on drawing, so I like to work with a storyboard for each shoot”.

De Middel also cast characters — either found on Facebook or through interactions with immigrants who work as informal vendors in Spain — and designed elaborate spacesuits, aided by her grandmother’s sewing prowess.

De Middel sourced the materials from African textile sellers in London’s Whitechapel and took them back to Spain where she was caring for her grandmother, gleefully announcing: “Okay, we are going to be taking care of each other: I am going to design a spacesuit and you are going to make it!”

As for the helmets, De Middel confides that they are the recycled covers of public streetlights, though she “had to make a bigger hole for the head”.

In one iconic shot, an Afronaut sporting a bright batik spacesuit stands next to a baby [Indian] elephant: the picture was taken in a zoo near her hometown of Alicante.

“I like that. I don’t pretend to be accurate or telling a story in a straight way,” De Middel says. “I’m not being very descriptive and literal … I’m suggesting things, giving a mood.”

De Middel self-consciously relies on the batik fabric and the elephant to act as visual hyperlinks for Africa, and the generic icons and imagery of space travel: flags, footprints, lunar surfaces, cosmic detritus, “advanced” technology and shrivelled alien bodies suggest a geography altogether more dispersed, a landscape of the imagination that is both familiar and strange.

Offering close encounters with alternative visions of Africa, The Afronauts riffs off the surge in African science fiction recently witnessed in art, literature and film.

Angolan photographer Kiluanji Kia Henda, in Spacecraft Icarus 13, for example, imagines the futuristic ruins of abandoned Soviet architecture in Luanda as the locus of a historic mission to the sun. Though Henda’s project underscores the failure of Angola’s president António Neto’s post-colonial regime, De Middel’s speculative project is more celebratory and her portrayal of Nkoloso is deeply sympathetic.

“I prefer to play on the fact that he’s a dreamer rather than a crazy man, a loser,” she reflects.

No one seems to know what happened to Nkoloso, or the pregnant girl who might have gone to Mars — and don’t even ask about the cat — but what De Middel has done with this extraordinary story is to take Nkoloso’s impossible dream and help him to make it into a beautiful, alternative, reality.

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