TPG hosts a talk by Cristina De Middel

6pm: Cristina de Middel talk introduced by Brett from TPG.
I did not like the concept behind Afronauts when I saw it as a finalist in the 2013 Deutsche Borse Prize at The Photographers Gallery, London, because I thought the author was inviting us to laugh at the attempts of unlikely candidates to send a rocket into space. The preamble to the subsequent film made by Middel, in my mind, confirms this:
In 1964 a Zambian science teacher named Edwuard Makuka decided to train the first African crew to travel to the moon. His plan was to use an alluminium rocket to put a woman, two cats and a missionary into Space. First the moon, then Mars, using a catapult system.
She was pleased to say that Martin Parr was full of praise for her work. Of course he would, because it does what Parr’s work does – it mocks people, in my opinion.

The Wikipedia entry for Makuka:

From 1960 until sometime after 1969, this program sought to accomplish the launching of a rocket that would send one girl, 17-year-old Matha Mwambwa, and two cats to the Moon. There were also plans for a trip toMars.[3]Nkoloso hoped to beat the United States and Soviet Union’s respective space programs at the height of theSpace Race.[2]

His space training programme was hardly in line with the USA or Soviet programmes: To train the astronauts, Nkoloso set up a makeshift facility on an abandoned farm 11 kilometres (7 mi) from Lusaka where the trainees would be rolled down a rough hill in a 200-litre (44 imp gal) oil drum.[3]This, according to Nkoloso, would train the men in the feeling ofweightlessnessin both space travel andre-entry.[6][8][9]In addition, they used a tire-swing to simulate weightlessness.
His aims for the mission to Mars were:

Nkoloso stated goals of the program were to establish a Christian ministry to “primitive” Martians, and the hope of Zambia becoming the “controllers of the Seventh Heaven of Interstellar space”. However, he reportedly instructed the missionary in the space program not to force Christianity onto thenative Martian inhabitants.[1]

He was not taken seriously by the Northern Rhodesia government who distanced itself from his ideas: Interviewed in 2016, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda said of the space program that “It wasn’t a real thing … It was more for fun than anything else.”

Although Kaunda stated that, Makuka Nkoloso had been serious in asking for funds for the project:UNESCO for a grant of £7,000,000 in Zambian pounds to support his space program.[3]It is also said he requested $1.9 billion from “private foreign sources”. However, the Ministry of Power, Transport and Communication is reported as stating those requests had not been made on the behalf of Zambia.

In the publication ‘Space legal issues’ 2020, the following was attributed to Makuka:

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, an African schoolteacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso launched the Zambian space program with a dozen aspiring teenage astronauts or “afronauts”. Nkoloso said he had been inspired by his first airplane flight. When the pilot refused to stop the plane so that he could get out and walk on the clouds, Nkoloso made up his mind to enter the Space Race.
Projects like this present (Makuka) Nkoloso as an eccentric visionary – an early pioneer of Afrofuturism, a term Mark Dery coined in 1992 to describe the nexus of black art and technoculture.

How could de Middel not be inviting us to mock the teacher? Is this how she was going to present a different view of Africa and Africans? It is certainly an unseen view.

In her talk, the author states that she had been a photojournalist for 10 years and realised that if she wanted to change the world, she would have to change photography because all the thousands of images about the plight of Africans in particular, had changed nothing. The world was showing the same images over and over again and it was not successful in showing what Africa, for example, was like. There had been a shallowness in reporting what was going on in African countries; the prejudice; low levels of expectations; reality was reduced to a few clichés.

In order to see about exploring a topic, de Middel suggests looking up the topic on Google images and then seeing what aspect of the topic is not being covered.

De Middel likes to play with photography in presenting her otherness. She has printed / published 14 books to learn to ask questions and to make better use of photography.

In her project “Gentleman’s Club” she states that she is 100% Leica documentary photography. She looked at prostitution from the clients’ perspective, those who keep it going, rather than the predictable prostitutes and naked women.

She approached it by advertising for men who use prostitutes and brothels to come forward and present themselves – invariably on a bed, with a resume:

In France where prostitution is criminalised, the men did not want to show their faces lest they are recognised. But that was not the case in all places:

The author said that after she had paid the sitters for their time, both realised the implications in money changing hands.

Back to Afronauts, de Middel made a loss on the publication because she had not costed the postage in the sale of her book which has sold out of the 3rd edition.

She is tired of hearing the opinions of white men. She wants to do work from a non-white, non-male perspective. Presumably white men have said all there is to say about all topics?

She is first a story teller and wants to create and tell stories that don’t exist – much like Fontcuberta, perhaps, and wants to share them.

De Middel feels that it is not only people from a place that need to tell the story of the place. To her, humour is important & she uses irony and sarcasm, as she does in her everyday life, to tell her stories. To her, B&W photography is over rated; photojournalists and journalism have lost their naiveté. She wants to subvert conventions; her opinion is not more valid than anybody else’s. When asked about possible topics for an MA, she felt that the person asking the question should rather spend the money making work and publishing it.


I totally agree that alternative narratives need to be identified, explored and presented but I cannot agree that we are justified in mocking the subjects of those narratives for our benefit, as I feel is the case with Afronauts and Martin Parr’s The last Resort, for example.

My thinking comes unstuck, however, when I look at the project Gentleman’s Club. The role reversal, where the woman (the photographer) pays the man for his services when he has not, up to that point, realised the sting, is terrific. Would I feel differently if I was a man? Would I see the duplicity / the mocking / the irony / the sarcasm? As a woman, I can justify and wholeheartedly agree that this unseen side of prostitution needs to be shown. Is there a parallel with Afronauts? Possibly not, unless launching a woman, a missionary and 2 cats reveals a sadistic revenge practice on the teacher’s part. Why would he send those out into space and not, for example a white man, a teacher and a cow or two?

For my work, I will give Google images a go – perhaps on my seaweed project, & see what images are not there.

I found de Middel’s presentation disarmingly unpretentious, lively, engaging and honest and would love to see her working.


2 thoughts on “TPG hosts a talk by Cristina De Middel

  1. I missed the first few minutes because I couldn’t find the link to begin with. To be honest, I felt overwhelmed by her pressure of speech and actually felt quite breathless. She has so much energy and enthusiasm for everything.
    I need to go back through my archives because I wrote some years ago about a talk she gave at the British Museum during the Fontcuberta Exhibition. From memory, de Middel was actually a student of Fontcuberta – will have to check before I start writing.
    One statement of hers that stood out for me was along the lines of, “We need to study who and why is presenting the World to us and we need to start filling the gaps”.


  2. I agree regarding her speed of delivery and energy. I wonder what her work will be like when she slows down?? The Fontcuberta link is there but superficially, I think. Her work is derivative, in my opinion, and lacks Fontcuberta’s wit and playfulness. As far as the quote is concerned, she also said that she considers herself an outsider (don’t we all?) and that it is not always the insider that can best see what is around him/her. By this I understand that it is not always the insider who can spot those gaps that need to be filled in. Hm… Interesting thought.


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