Today, our post will highlighting an archival image from the National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Archives. The archives houses over 300,000 fantastic images chronicling many aspects of life from across the entire continent of Africa over the last 120 years.
Every other week, this blog will highlight one image from the Archives’ vast holdings that ties directly to the works in Earth Matters. Selections are intended to broaden and enrich our understandings of the exhibition – and spark discussions about all the many ways that the Earth matters.
Here is today’s selection:
The trading and transporting of salt, Mopti, Mali, Photograph by Maya Bracher, 1971, EEPA EENG 09870, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Salt is an integral, if often overlooked, part of our earth. Despite its ubiquity at our dinner tables, we often forget to consider where that salt came from – and the answer, of course, is the earth. The salt trade has been a significant factor in the history of Africa for centuries, a central facet of life not just in Ethiopia, but also much of Saharan Africa. In fact, the most famous deposits are in the deserts of Mauritania and Mali, the latter being the location of this archival photograph, taken by Maya Bracher in 1971.
Earth Matters seeks to reintroduce salt into the conversation about the substance of the earth. We see Berni Searle’s feet moving across the salt encrusted landscape of the land she traversed as an immigrant and Antònio Ole’s artistic, almost abstracted, portraits of salt pans. The rough texture of salt landscapes is painfully evident, and a reminder that our conceptions of what the earth looks are far from uniform.
But the above photo emphasizes the individual within the larger context of the salt trade, the personal within the landscape. As seen here, salt from most sources in Africa requires work and preparation before it can be used or traded. Individuals touch and handle this material before it becomes the seemingly banal substance we are used to seeing. When this photograph was taken, convicts still made up the majority of workers doing this hard physical labor in Mali.
Anawana Haloba, an artist featured in Earth Matters, similarly uses salt as the medium with which to illuminate intimate, human connections to the land. In her series of Salt Licked maps (c. 1999) and her work Lamentations (2005), Haloba uses her tongue to trace meandering pathways through salt – a material which, as Ole and Searle have already shown, provokes serious visceral reactions, something Haloba capitalized on her a later work were the sounds of visitors tracing salt was amplified with microphones. In a site-specific work created just for the exhibit, This and Many More (2013), Haloba has installed vibrant rock salt, intended to decay and leave the visitor with the taste and smell of salt, in the way that salt has lingered throughout history, as the currency to buy slaves, as a focal point for the anti-colonial protests in India led by Mahatma Gandhi, and as a component in all human tears.
Anwana Haloba’s piece This and Many More (2013) – photo via Instagram