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Nov 28, 2014
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The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel

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It wouldn’t be wise to start 2013 afresh, not paying first the necessary respects to last year’s wonder; and that would be, without any doubt, The Afronauts, Cristina de Middel’s sci-fi photo book.

Art & Photo Books, Homepage Feature  •  Jan 10, 2013

It wouldn’t be wise to start 2013 afresh, not paying first the necessary respects to last year’s wonder; and that would be, without any doubt, The Afronauts, Cristina de Middel’s sci-fi photo book.

In striking resemblance to an atmospheric 60’s b-movies setting, the Afronauts are about fictional scenes, inspired by Zambia’s actual space project that launched in 1964, with an aim to surpass its respective US and Soviet components, and take the first prize in the Space Race.

The project was the initiative of a grade-school science teacher, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who founded the first local, unofficial space programme, namely the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, right after the Zambia Independence Act was signed.

 

Nkoloso’s final destination was Mars, and he trained a selected group in a secret base outside Lusaka. The crew included 10 astronauts and Matha Mwamba, a 17-year-old girl ‘spacegirl’, with her 10 cats. The training methods involved swinging from a long rope that was cut οff suddenly, and rolling down the hill inside a time capsule that was in fact a 40-gallon oil-drum, to get the trainees accustomed to free-fall and the feeling of weightiness.

Although the Independence festivities interfered, according to Nkoloso, in the smooth running of the programme, his vision and the encouragement of the youth of Lusaka kept the dream intact. All he asked for was a £7,000,000 grant from UNESCO, and then he was firm he could land the first astronaut on the moon by 1965.

On the other hand, his spacemen were not that devoted; as Nkoloso complained, ‘They won’t concentrate on space-flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon.’ Indeed, during the training period, the Zambian Barbarella got pregnant and left the project in a hurry.

Unfortunately, UNESCO did not further support the project, and the Zambian space crew made it only to TIME magazine and Reuters TV reports.

In the Afronauts, Cristina de Middel treats the fascinating subject with equal humour and sensibility to Nkoloso’s primitive ambitions: Cats are pictured flying during instruction, exotic costumes are combined with outdated equipment, and dreamy faces stare out of totally inappropriate space training backdrops.

 

As de Middel approaches the story with extra care, she manages touching, dream-like results, capturing accurately the absurdity and the unorthodox nature of the initial space project. A collection of powerful images, the photo book is thus naïve, nostalgic and refreshing at the same time, for it brings to mind an era that everything seemed doable.

An experienced photojournalist, de Middel is interested in the subtle lines between real and invented images, allowing cautiously herself to ‘to break the rules of veracity trying to push the audience into analyzing the patterns of the stories we consume as real’. Unlike any conventional photo book, her imaginary documentation of the elusive journey is both inspirational and intriguing, securing fairly a place to next year’s Deutsche Börse photography prize shortlist.

I’m afraid the amazing Afronauts appear now to be sold out, and there are no immediate plans for republishing. Do stay alert though for de Middel’s following personal projects.

 

 

 

 

 

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Marw Kouvatsou is an Art Historian and Writer, with a particular interest in the Eastern European and Asian region. She’s a regular contributor to AGImag and ProjectRok, and Artistic Director of ArtStress.com.