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Sprawl and Art, Africa and California

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Sometimes I read about art projects dealing with socially conscious themes and think “wow, this shows a real lack of self-awareness.” That’s how I felt when reading about this:

Nick Brandt has been photographing the grandeur of East Africa’s stoic wildlife since 2001, but during his many trips he has observed a troubling pattern:

“The destruction of the natural world was occurring at an alarming rate — faster than my already pessimistic imagination could have anticipated,” Brandt said from his studio in the Santa Monica Mountains.

His forthcoming series of photos, “Inherit the Dust,” was conceived as his elegy to Africa’s natural world. He came up with the idea of photographing displaced animals in places where just three years earlier they used to roam — but no longer can because of rapid urban sprawl. Factories, garbage dumps and quarries now stand where elephants, lions, rhinos and cheetahs once lived.

To compose his latest photos, Brandt had life-size prints of the animals transferred onto giant panels and erected in situ — once familiar ground where people are oblivious to the giant creatures in their midst. Like ghosts in a landscape.

“It was an effective way of showing this level of present-day dystopia that humans are creating,” Brandt said.

For his ghosts, he selected never-before-published black-and-white portraits including one of his favorite subjects, Craig, a 40-year-old Amboseli bull elephant.

Photos printed in California were shipped and glued to aluminum and plywood frames. The panels, up to 30 feet long and sometimes rising even higher, were loaded onto trucks and driven to their designated sites. As many as 23 men worked in heat that reached 100 degrees to set up and strap down the panels in often rugged terrain. Horizon lines were carefully matched up with the composition of the original photo and contours of the land.

What does the art intend to convey?

Filmmaker and conservationist Dereck Joubert said every photographer-conservationist struggles with the dual desire to show beauty in the wild while protesting what is happening in formerly pristine lands. “What Nick has done is combine the two in a way that sends a visual protest but doesn’t detract from the beauty inside of each wildlife frame,” Joubert said, calling the result a “juxtaposition of celebration and regret.”

Brandt’s “Wasteland With Elephant” depicts an elephant walking through a river of garbage in central Kenya. “Just three years ago, zebras, gazelles and impalas could be seen roaming through these places,” he said.

Sitting in a trash-filled alleyway next to a stagnant pool of fetid sewage, a solemn chimpanzee lowers his head as if mourning the loss of his former home.

Where does this horrible sprawl remind the photographer of?

Brandt compared the “out-of-control development, overpopulation and crowds” in some parts of modern Africa to that in parts of China and India. “I never thought I’d put Africa in the same category,” he said.

And where will Brandt’s art be shown?

An exhibition of “Inherit the Dust” will open March 24 at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and will run through May 14.

Well, it’s a good thing that the art is going to be shown in Los Angeles but he has nothing to say about sprawl in California. Clearly that was environmentally sustainable and totally didn’t destroy habitat for wildlife!

None of this is to say that the massive sprawl of African cities isn’t terrible for wildlife, not great for people, and isn’t something that westerners shouldn’t address. But there are so many assumptions at play in this artist’s work–that Africa is inherently natural and should be maintained that way for the enjoyment of the western mind and tourist, that there’s no need to ask actual Africans what they want their world to look like, and that the problems over there are completely different than our world. So this artist can live in the Santa Monica Mountains and come to Los Angeles all the time where eighteen million people have decimated the environment over 5,000 square miles and he can completely ignore the vast poverty where he lives while talking about the degradation of Africa.

Now, I don’t want to assume too much here. Obviously, some of the problematic framing of all this could be on the reporter and it’s possible the artist does care very much about these issues in California. I don’t want to castigate the man for expressing real concern about real problems. And certainly he is aware of how this pollution affects the people who live in these slums. But there are also some red flags raised that need addressing.

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  • Thirtyish

    Meh. His vision isn’t perfect, but his heart is in the right place at least. And how much influence do we really expect one artist to have? I do understand the point about problematic western assumptions, but again, I think that’s something that shouldn’t be laid wholly at the feet of this one dude.

    • It’s obviously not being wholly laid at the feet of this person. But how do we discuss problematic assumptions about people and places in our culture without pointing out examples of those problems?

      And as I point out frequently, just because your heart is in the right place does not mean that your actions do not contribute to problems, i.e., moving to the suburbs so your kids can attend better schools. Your heart being in the right place doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be open to criticism. Nor does it make you a monster. It means the world is complicated and problems are tricky and we should be trying harder to assess those problems honestly instead of just feeling good about ourselves.

  • sonamib

    I’m not sure sprawl is the right word here. Sprawl brings to mind wealthy-nations-specific low density car-oriented growth. I don’t think anybody calls the growth of Western cities during the Industrial Revolution “sprawl”.

    These are poor people looking for a better life in the city. The process should be way better managed by the local authorities, of course, but urban boundaries are expected to grow a little with such explosive population growth.

    • Cheerful

      I agree that sprawl is less the problem, than extinction of the remaining wild megafauna of the earth is a problem.

      • That extinction has relatively little to do with sprawling African cities, which the artist should know.

        • sonamib

          Yeah, at the end of the day, the cities themselves occupy a relatively small footprint. I’m not a specialist on what are the principal causes of wild fauna extinction, but it certainly can’t be the growth of the cities.

          • It’s almost all poaching, particularly for the Chinese market. Some of it as well is that African people who have to deal with them hate lions because, you know, those lions eat them, elephants trample their crops, etc. But it’s poaching primarily.

            • Anna in PDX

              This is true. I thought that this art did seem a bit tone deaf. The problem with habitat destruction and species being killed off is due to 1) resource extraction largely carried out by rapacious neocolonialist international corporations and 2) poaching. Not poor Africans moving to urban centers to have better lives.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                The extension of Accra into the exburbs isn’t a result of poor people moving into the city from the north. Those people settle in what are called here “slums” such as Nima in the center of the city. These places have very poor sanitation due to a severe lack of toilets and the existence of open sewers. The exburb growth has been fueled by the middle and skilled working class being pushed out of the center of the city by high rents. Rents literally go from $5000 a month in the center of Accra to $200 a month in the exburbs. So even taking a taxi everyday or buying a car for work is a much more affordable option. There are a considerable number of people that work in Accra and live a four hour drive away in places like Winneba.

              • sonamib

                Not poor Africans moving to urban centers to have better lives.

                To develop on that, I’ll say that poor people in rural areas are often at the mercy of local strongmen/warlords, and they’re vulnerable to drought and starvation. In the city, life might be shitty, but at least it’s a lot more difficult to starve to death there, and you have hundreds of different oppressors you can choose to work for, you may be able to pick the least bad one.

                Like you, I’m also wary of unqualified criticism of thirld world urban growth because I’ve heard it a lot from middle-class Brazilians who are uncomfortable with favelas and would prefer that “those people” stayed poor out of sight, out of mind in a faraway place.

                • J. Otto Pohl

                  Africa is a huge continent. Some commonalities apply to most places on the continent like the historical legacy of colonialism. But, others do not. The problem of warlords and starvation only apply to some African states. Really in modern times famine in Africa has been limited to the countries of the horn such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. Malnutrition, preventable diseases, and poverty on the otherhand are much more universal. Poverty and slums are now even a problem again for some 100,000 South African whites. Malnutrition related diseases, untreated tuberculosis, and other poverty related ailments definitely kill a lot of people throughout Africa. But, for most of the continent actual famine deaths are rare.

                • sonamib

                  Sorry, you’re right, didn’t mean to stereotype.

            • Thom

              Also, the real decimation happened in the 19th century.

  • LWA

    It is of course only right that we call attention to the devastation that is happening to the natural environment, whether in LA or Africa.
    But whenever we raise a political point we need to be aware of the fact that nothing political happens in a vacuum.

    Every statement gets dropped into a furious debate filled with agendas and counter arguments.
    The favorite counter argument to anything environmental is that we lavish attention on the natural world while ignoring the humans.

    Which is a neat way of using starving humans as human shields for the rapacious destruction caused, not so much by the starving people, but by us, right here in LA, and frankly, the upper middleclass who live in places like the Santa Monica Mountains.

    Its our consumer appetite after all that creates the market pressure that causes most of the devastation.

    Its one of the signature weaknesses of the environmental movement that it disconnects the purchase of the latest shiny new phone from the slaves working in the mines in Africa, asking us instead to focus on the comfort food version of environmental awareness, the instinctual natural awe of elephants and cheetahs, rather than sustainability.

    • ironic irony

      Every statement gets dropped into a furious debate filled with agendas and counter arguments.
      The favorite counter argument to anything environmental is that we lavish attention on the natural world while ignoring the humans.

      It also conveniently separates humanity from nature, an inherently false separation.

  • tsayguy

    Brandt is pretty well regarded as a photographer as I understand it- he is clearly an excellent practitioner of his craft. But skillful artistic expression and coherent self-awareness of ones social/political expression have never obviously gone hand in hand. I don’t think I’ve heard him talk so much about “sprawl” before (not that I’ve followed him so closely) but it seems pretty consistent with his overall body of work and expression.

    • Vance Maverick

      Not sure where you’re drawing the line here. Essentially all photography involves some level of engagement with the realities that are represented — you can’t make a photo of a rhino that isn’t to some extent about a rhino. So unless you limit “skillful artistic expression” to cover only concerns like the use of the range of gray tones afforded by the medium, I think the problems here are problems of artistic skill.

      • tsayguy

        So unless you limit “skillful artistic expression” to cover only concerns like the use of the range of gray tones afforded by the medium, I think the problems here are problems of artistic skill.

        I am, and I don’t even really disagree with what you’re saying. But I’m saying the Venn diagram of “technical artistic skill” and “consciousness and awareness of the external realities” is not that large. And yeah, Brandt’s work is activism around the plight of animals (with an emphasis on the Bigs) in Africa, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be fully thought out in a way that can avoid some of these criticisms (as if avoiding such criticism is even the goal).

  • Thom

    It may be that the curator in LA is interested in this work precisely because it will encourage people to think about the place where they live and its environmental pasts and present, just as exposure to history can help people think about the present.

  • Origami Isopod

    Erik, I think you have the wrong link. When I click through I go here:
    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/shamkhani-republican-prisonor-swap

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