This is why I don't use 'primitive' or, indeed, 'tribe'/'tribal' when writing about African Arts

I suspect I could write pages over pages of well argued academic reasoning of why I don’t think terms such as ‘primitive’ or, indeed, ‘tribal’ make for good qualifiers in discussions of African or, in fact, other non-Western arts and cultures. I could never make as clear a point as this … well, I suspect it was meant to be a caricature? So, for lack of a better word, let’s call it caricature. This, er, caricature of Barack Obama probably makes a clearer point of the connotations and mental images that terms such as ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ carry in Western (by which I mean northern American and European) mainstream public discourse than academic argument could ever achieve.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think this is vile. And, not even particularly original. In the same way that the Danish cartoons were vile and unoriginal. And, in the same way this caricature should better maybe better be ignored rather than providing the caricature (and the ideology that inspires their producers) free extra publicity by public outrage. In fact, I believe that is, in both cases, what’s been the intention behind the publication of these images. Nevertheless, I can’t resist a quick analysis here to, once and for all, get my point across regarding the inappropriateness of terms such as ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal.’ Now, this is what spontaneously came to my mind when I stumbled across this image:

Let’s start with a quick description as the basis of any further reading of the image:

As you can see, the US president’s portrait photograph has been copied and pasted into the original image of a man who wears what, from my uninformed perspective, looks like an indigenous Papua New Guinean costume. It consists of an elaborate headdress decorated with colourful bird feathers, a nose ornament made from (I guess) bone, a set of (leather) necklaces and an apron made from some kind of (fish or snake) skin. The latter is decorated by three pieces of red cloth to which hear hair and some other kind of embellishment has been applied like sequins. He wears bands of leather around his legs just below the knee and on his forearms. The man sits on a simple wooden bench in or in front of what appears like a simple wooden shelter. In front of him he holds what looks like a simple, self-made wooden axe with a short metal blaze.

Underneath the altered photograph, Obama Care has been written. Now, I don’t happen to follow the health care debate in the United States - this certainly is the context in which the image needs to be seen if further interpreted – and cannot make any further sense of the symbol that constitutes the o in Obama. The symbol constituting the c in Care, however, very much reminds me of the hammer and sickle symbol I happen to be familiar with from my East German upbringing. Hence, I assume it’s a reference to socialism.

Getting back to the upper image of Barack Obama in what I suggested might be an indigenous Papua New Guinean context (I’d be grateful for any corrections here or, if possible, any reference/link to the original photograph): In any case, dominant currents of Western discourse identify the depicted man and, by extension the current US president, as a ‘tribal man’ and do so mainly on the basis of his costume. I doubt I can make a good argument of why this particular type of dress is identified as ‘tribal’ in dominant Western discourses. But you might want to type ‘tribe’ or better still ‘tribal man’ into Google’s picture search engine and will find pictures of sparsely clad people in costumes somehow reminiscent of this man’s dress or otherwise looking extremely obscure to somebody familiar with Western costumes or body images only. Visually, that’s what informs mainstream Western discourses of ‘tribe’ and ‘tribal.’ In any case, more important than this is the question of, why pasting Obama’s portrait into this image? What’s the point of displaying president Obama’s portrait this way?

Well, in 19th century discourses of men’s social evolution, more concretely the evolution of social groups from mere kinship groups towards nation states, tribes were believed to be situated somewhere between bands and (European style) nation states. Let me just refer you to Chris Low’s (free access) article on the topic again. Here it is sufficient to recall that according to this model then, tribal people are inferior to those living in nation states. An idea that fed into arguments legitimating the colonisation of the rest of the world by European nation states: They would bring civilisation to the culturally and, contemporaries believed, intellectually inferior tribes. And, lest you forgot that, the here discussed picture of president Obama reminds you: a simple wooden bench, a simple shelter, and a simple axe, no sophisticated technology here.

Here then is the reason that the opponents of Obama’s health care reform chose to depict the president like this.

For simple just read ‘primitive.’ And remember that, according to the above mentioned models of social evolution, rather than historical coincident (you might want to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel in that regard) an innate lack of intellectual ability is to blame for this ‘tribal’ man’s lack of sophisticated technology.

Is that the men you want to entrust your health to?

Now, the very fact that those behind this caricature consider this an effective means of undermining the president’s authority and question his (intellectual) ability, I believe, can be taken as indicative of how deep such derogative ideas are still rooted in major strands of Western public discourse. At least among those behind this poster and their target audiences. And how closely they are still aligned with terms such as ‘primitive’ or, indeed, ‘tribe.’

With this at the back of your mind, don’t you think that qualifiers such as ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ are inherently racist? At least, when applied to non-Western cultures? At least, when applied used by Western commentators.

Or, does anybody think they would have employed a similar image if Obama wasn't Afro-American. Or would somehow, the connotations have been different? (Think of Farewell to the King with Nick Nolte among others.) - Oh, lest I forget, there have been some interesting analyses of the role of race/racism in the current health care debates in the United States, more concretely their escalation. This is the one that made me stumble upon the here discussed image. [It’s on the main page.]

P.S. Of course, there are different uses of the term tribe. For reasons not at all clear to me, tribe appears to be an acceptable terminology when talking about Native Americans: Sidney Kasfir mentioned this on the Duke UP Roundtable. Now, in that particular context, does it carry derogative meanings as well? … … … In any case, it is certainly no coincidence that the here discussed poster does not reference any indigenous North American culture.


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  2. Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa


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