Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Beninese Picture Pose and the Ideal Man

My friends during college developed a small canon of classic photo poses. There is the game-face "World Cup" pose, for example. There is the "Mather Finger Wave" which requires a story to be properly understood. A later addition to the collection--much to my chagrin--was the "Vroeg Grin." I guess you could see exhibit A above for an idea of that one. But in my opinion, the most impressive element of the above photo (taken with some Artisans after they "graduated" from an accounting class) is not the white guy but those soul-piercing Beninese faces. "What's going on behind those eyes?" you may ask.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why the popular people’s pose is this way, but I recently read something by an Art Historian named Kathy Curnow ("Prestige and the Gentleman: Benin’s Ideal Man") that makes me wonder if some of what encourages such stern and stolid expressions before the immortalizing powers of a camera is some effort to prove and portray the “Ideal Man.”
What constitutes the ideal man of West Africa, you may ask? Some of Nigeria artwork may clue us in. Often, “great” men would commission artists to render them in carvings of different kinds—perhaps the rough historic equivalent of the grand photo one is guaranteed to see beautifying the wall of almost any Beninese household.
Most generally, this artwork tells us the ideal man is “a prominent individual who has acquired wealth and a large household of dependents (and supporters)…His public behavior is aggressive, generous, confident, responsible, and showy.” He is also adept at operating in the social limelight.
There is also at work in culture a kind of contest between men—which at some point has replaced warfare—in which men compete through “innovations in architecture, dress, entertainment, or imported cars.”
Watching Beninese men in public—especially in the South—can confirm these observations. In this artwork these qualities and this contest are conveyed by the visual and symbolic representation of wealth and social prominence. In photos today this may be manifested by the fancy clothes (which “make the man”) and bling-bling many Beninese insist on porting themselves with before a camera. Often they are photographed with the superimposed grandeur of a French villas backdrop.
What’s especially interesting about the artwork, though, is that the visages of men are “virtually interchangeable: everyone is youthful and vigorous, most gazing confidently at the viewer.” This pose, ostensibly “standardized” in this artwork, is an argument to the viewer of “the ways great men prefer to present themselves: as eternal presences of immutable celebrity, in control of themselves and their environment.” Could something like this really be going on inside the head of the Beninese guy posing beside me and my wimpy smirk?
If my theory holds about the connection between the Beninese pose, some of West Africa’s historical artwork, and the ideals of masculinity, I admit it that it may not be able to explain why women also tend to pose this way, since the kind of artwork I am referencing almost completely excludes depictions of women. On second thought, maybe the ideal woman is an extension of the male counterpart. Curnow might agree: “With women’s absence, the visual ideal becomes narrowly conceived, defining both masculinity and humanity.”