Wednesday, November 19, 2014

One f***ing tree!

Image by Simon Stevens
Thanks to Janice Lynch Schuster for forwarding me this terrific article about stereotypes, in this case visual stereotypes about Africa.  The story is emblematic of our country's lack of understanding of other parts of the world.  I encountered this from friends and colleagues before, during, and after my recent trip to South Africa.  The lede:

Last week, Africa Is a Country, a blog that documents and skewers Western misconceptions of Africa, ran a fascinating story about book design. It posted a collage of 36 covers of books that were either set in Africa or written by African writers. The texts of the books were as diverse as the geography they covered: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique. They were written in wildly divergent styles, by writers that included several Nobel Prize winners. Yet all of books’ covers featured an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both.

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”

Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clich├ęs. 

The diagnosis:

We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand.   

Change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund [Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf] predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.” 

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