The Russians had Laika and Yuri Gagarin, respectively first dog and first man in space. The Americans hit back with Neil Armstrong, who made his small step/giant leap onto the moon’s surface. But both superpowers could easily have been eclipsed by Zambia, if only it had been up to Edward Makuka Nkoloso. In the early sixties, this village schoolteacher, who styled himself Director of the Zambia National Academy of Space Research, had developed a full-blown plan to win the space race. Neither astronauts nor cosmonauts would dominate the news, but afronauts. But alas, Nkoloso never secured the measly 700 million pounds his space project required and Zambia’s astral ambitions got condemned to the dusty corners of history.
Until Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel revived the story, that is. Her 2012 book The Afronauts was such a hit it sold out within months. FOAM in Amsterdam is currently hosting The Afronauts, the exhibition, which is comprised of staged photographs, copies of typed letters, and reproduced notes.
Cristina De Middel, Umeko from the series The Afronauts, 2012; © Cristina De Middel.
In a setting echoing as much Solaris as Red Dwarf, the galactic explorers-to-be frolic around in suits made from colorful Vlisco cloth and plastic shopping bags. Their bubble helmets look like murky fishbowls, and some uniforms are upgraded with raffia fringe. A young space cadet dreams of far flung universes in a mudbrick shed covered in glittery stickers with a distinct disco quality. A flag bearing a smiley proudly flutters in the wind, a premonition of the Blaxploitation movement which would blossom the next decade. In an enlarged newspaper article Nkoloso proclaims: “We’re going to Mars, with ten astronauts, a space girl and a space cat.”
The project is a far cry from the more somber photojournalism De Middel engaged in after graduating from the University of Oklahoma and training as a war correspondent. Besides her work in the frontlines of crisis areas she has also done documentary work, which sometimes has a Martin Parr-like cynical edge (those pitiful pensionados in Benidorm) or an accusatory undertone (in Welcome she juxtaposes images of a tourist compound and a nearby refugee camp as diptychs).
Cristina De Middel, Jambo from the series The Afronauts, 2012; © Cristina De Middel.
But after ten years confronting injustice, ugliness, and misery, De Middel turned away from photojournalism. Like, for example, American artist Andrew Norman Wilson, she no longer believes in producing images that confirm what we already know. But whereas Wilson has set up a commercial enterprise, Stock Fantasy Ventures, to create alternative, often art-inspired content for news agencies, De Middel much more radically chooses to create an alternative reality altogether. While The Afronauts is loosely based on a fascinating historical snippet, it basically constitutes a parallel universe.
That the work is fiction doesn’t mean De Middel’s approach is devoid of pitfalls. The Afronauts could easily have slipped into ridicule or even covert racism. But with a series like Life and Miracles of Paula P – The Real Story of a Fake Prostitute De Middel has proven before that she can deflate morally infused propositions with a loving, respectful perspective. Like Paula P..., which reads like a magical story, The Afronauts breathes lightness and hopefulness. Afronauts is a dream about a dream.
(Image on top: Cristina De Middel, IkoIko from the series The Afronauts, 2012; © Cristina De Middel.)