Picks and Pans Review: Africa Then

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

edited by Nicolas Monti

Monti, an Italian architect and photography historian, has collected an often arresting array of pictures taken in Africa from 1840 to 1918. They range from shots of the Boer War to soft-core porn of a black African with a nude white woman to an especially zany portrait from about 1900 of an Italian singing teacher with his large class of Eritrean boys. In his text Monti burdens the photographs with an obsession for analysis, trotting out what seem to be Marxist interpretations and adding such distractions as this caption under a photograph of a Masai man: "The European photographer seemed to find, in the immobility and the dignified gestures of the African, those lost gods that had been present throughout the century in German romanticism, from Heine to Nietzsche." Monti would have been better off quitting while he was ahead—in his introduction. There he quotes V.S. Naipaul: "The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else, but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their power, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got the slaves and the statues." That brilliant summary and these photographs—particularly revealing in their patronizing attitude toward the Africans—are enough to provide stark insights into the European conquest of Africa, which began a series of tumultuous events that is far from over. (Knopf, $35)

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