Among many other things, the New York Times Magazine photo critic and author Teju Cole is an art historian with an M. Phil. from Columbia. Recently, he gave a talk on photography at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. The packed lecture was held at the Mozaic restaurant on Jalan Raya Sanggingan, the main drag in Ubud, which is a resort town of some thirty thousand souls smack in the middle of a paradisical jungle that looks like something out of a Rider Haggard story; attendees were served martinis and beautiful hors d’oeuvres.
Seydou Keïta was a great portraitist. I mean… I don’t know what you think of African photography, but this is a city in West Africa in 1956; a young couple goes into the studio and says, we’re in love, take a picture of us. Look at the way her bra strap just falls off her shoulder, and they’re both so incredibly beautiful (Yeah, breathes a lady in the audience); and that was what Seydou Keïta was about. It was not about the ethnographic gaze. Even as much as I admire someone like Cartier-Bresson… he comes to Bali and takes ethnographic images of Balinese people in their native dress, or whatever. But when people are taking pictures of themselves, the gaze is always different; very often it’s about their presence and about their dignity.
About a decade after him, in the late 1960s, Malick Sidibé, also from Mali… he’s all about the people who are listening to James Brown, to American rock and roll, r&b, there’s a little bit of Black Power, some bell-bottoms, very cool glasses; so he’s very focused on the Malian youth… There’s something about his composition that is a bit wilder, a bit more on the fly; they’re doing the Twist; he’s using a flash instead of natural light.
The reason these kinds of images are so important is that very often we have to deal with this idea that there’s no modernity in Africa. And even today, when you see American TV for example and you want to see something about Africa, all you see is sort of, National Geographic images of villagers in grass skirts, you know. I’ve never seen anyone in a grass skirt, and I lived in Africa for seventeen years…
Raghubir Singh was very strongly influenced by Cartier-Bresson, a good friend of Cartier-Bresson, but they had a falling out because Cartier-Bresson said: Eh! we cannot do good work in color, you know; it’s too lurid, it’s too cheap. And so Raghubir Singh says: I’ll show you.
And so he goes all around India and he makes these amazingly vivid and complex images. Over there, there’s a flash that has that lit up that green door, perfectly framed; that statue which is in the middle of a busy park in Kolkata; there’s a bus, and the people on there… you see that guy over there? Leaning over into the car… Everything. Everything belongs. Everything is part of modern life.
So there’s this kind of radical acceptance that is very often a part of the most interesting photography: What the eye sees is a worthy subject.
The road to a post-imperial global culture is lined with harebrained undergraduates, but luckily for us all there are formidable, inclusive and gifted figures, like Cole, who are leading the way there for real. Before our talk, he had also given a vivid interview about his book, Open City, and the complexities inherent in a historicist reading of colonialism:
When I did my first master’s degree it was in African art history, and when I did a second one — when I went to New York and I went to Columbia — it was in sixteenth-century Flemish Art… How do people in Indonesia feel about the Dutch? Yyyeeeeah, those guys…
But in the sixteenth century, the Dutch were under Spanish colonialism. So the art I was studying was anti-colonial vernacular Dutch art that was aimed at putting pressure on the Spanish, to leave them for home rule. So history is like, a real motherfucker, you know. You never know what angle it’s going to come at.
A bit later we sat down to lunch on the stone terrace of the Indus restaurant in Ubud, which overlooks a deep jungle gorge dotted with resorts and temples. Just as my tape began to roll, a pretty, rather hippie-ish Australian lady of about seventy-five dashed up to Cole; she was beside herself with excitement, exclaiming: “How lucky am I? That I could catch you… I had no idea about you before, and now, I think you are one of the most interesting human beings I’ve met!” He smiled and shook her hand; thanked her, asked her name.
“Brenda!” And soon she was telling him her whole life. “Because I’m old… and I’ve stayed married to one man for forty years.” It was sweet, albeit a little difficult to follow. “… and you’re talking like a man who knows it all!”
He laughed shyly, with real delight. “Thank you very much.”
The topic of global culture was the obvious one; wasn’t this what we were participating in right now, here in the jungle? So I began by asking about the shared world of literature, something Cole wrote about very movingly in Every Day Is For the Thief, his novella about a young Nigerian man returning to Lagos after a time in the United States.
What you wrote about “the universal culture” struck me so much. I mean, I came all this bazillions of miles in honor of that exact thing. All these people are here just for this… and it’s like…
It’s a worthy way of spending our money and spending our time.
It’s so much better than any kind of identification that is imposed from outside. So for example, if somebody is queer, and they meet other queer people and they share struggles, fine. But there is actually something much wider and more flexible to me inside art, than in race or religion, because of the capacity for surprise.
Because that Australian lady does not share my world: what she grew up with, her assumptions about life? I mean, you know?
When she was a young girl she was not thinking, you know, “I’m going to have a moment where I’m communicating very closely with some young black guy from Nigeria.” No. No, you don’t imagine that. And that’s what art makes possible. My audience is not young black men in their thirties, who’ve gone to university; I mean, I have a lot of them, but it’s not necessarily my “target audience.”
Is there a target audience?
There isn’t! That’s the point.
When I was growing up I learned that some people would be comforted by the fact that I spoke Spanish, or just neutral, while some were weirded out or put off by it, but like… I am always just the same on the inside. So my strategy about this was always like okay, what are you bringing to this narrative so that I can —
— unpack it —
— figure out how to talk to you?! Let me just figure out how to talk to you.
Because you just walk into a space as an American woman, interacting with people, but you don’t know what they’re carrying with them… either they’re hispanophiles, they fetishize the culture: Oh, Latinos are cool!
Exactly: All these things? The same thing for African-Americans. Oh: You’re so cool! Or: I’m afraid of you! Or: Wow, you’re like the President!
Right… it’s sort of like this space where it’s very hard to be just an ordinary and neutral human being.
Yes. That’s why I love your book so much, because it’s just so effortlessly that.
When I was talking about representation earlier, that’s what I meant. You don’t always have to announce: a black man. It’s like, a person. And then according to how the narrative flows, that person has dimensions to them that could be racial, or their sexual identity…
The curry lunch arrived, in half a green coconut each: the rice molded in a perfect pyramid, and served on leaves cut up into complicated designs, like origami paper. So pretty. I looked up to see that Cole had taken out his phone, in order to take a photograph of his lunch! I was so thrilled that I forgot to take the lens cap off my own camera; he reached over and kindly removed it while I’m all, Ah! Oh man move over Don DeLillo, because this is insane.
What do you think about owning art?
I think it’s a fine idea.
Do you think a regular person should be able to own, like, a Vermeer?
Those are two different questions. For example, I am just at the very modest, fledgling beginnings of being a collector of photography. And I think it’s great; it’s good to live with those objects.
And I’m interested in contemporary art made by Africans, and by Americans of color. Will I ever be able to afford them? I don’t know, but when I think of people like Wangechi Mutu, or (Julie Mehretu or people like that, that stuff is cool, it’s funky, it’s contemporary and they made it last week, and it’s really got a lot of thought and feeling in it… and it’s digested all the postwar history of American art, and made something fresh and new out of the immigrant experience.
But when someone pays $160 million for a Rembrandt or a de Kooning… I don’t even know what’s going on there. Is it only acquisitiveness? I don’t know what kind of feeling they have for the art… Maybe the question should be: someone who privately owns a Vermeer, there’s some in museums, they’re very nice. Some of it can be in private ownership, it’s okay, it’s part of the circulation.
What it’s our job to do [as critics] is to help create and sustain value for overlooked work… So to do the kind of writing around that work, the celebration of that work, to give an account of how that work functions in the world: to say, here’s this photographer from Mali, here’s this sculptor from Nigeria, here’s this Honduran filmmaker, we’re doing this festival of Brazilian film. You know! Those things.
I’m talking about this not as a fiction writer but as a critical writer. Some of our work is to look at the overlooked, to draw attention to those worthy things. The question is not always about what people are paying $50 million for, but the stuff that is only fifty thousand, only ten thousand, and getting that stuff into the museum space and have it be what it needs to be, to write books about it, to get it in the syllabus.
It’s funny to think we can have that power, because in the ordinary way of looking at writing — any kind of writing — it’s not important work, it doesn’t make a lot of money.
No. In a lot of EU countries there is a set amount in the budget for culture; in Scandinavia it might be like one percent, and then when the government says no! we can’t spend so much, and whether they take it down to .95 percent or back up to 1.1 percent, they always put a few million into culture. Because that’s just what we do; we’re not animals! But in America we’re always in such permanent conflict; countries like the U.S. should not have trouble funding culture… It’s true that you have to answer the question of what should be funded.
There’s a universe in what you just said, though: what does that mean, “We’re not animals”?
Well we are animals. We are anxious animals. The word “civilization” has been used oppressively. It has been used in the cause of racial supremacy, for example.
But every human society has brought expression to a similarly profound and high purpose. Our societies all go back thousands of years: Aztec carving, gamelan music, nineteenth-century European art, Chinese painting… every contemporary human is connected to extremely profound and elevated forms of artistic expression. And not to foster that is crazy. And that’s why I say: We’re not animals. We’re not just eating and drinking and material needs.
So is it possible to be post-colonial without being entirely anti-colonial, in some sense?
I would certainly say I’m anti-colonial. The core, fundamental impetus of colonialism — we’re better than these other people, and we’ll show them how it’s done — if that was all colonialism was, it would be problematic, but understandable. But no, it’s like, we’re going to come here and take their stuff, and then teach them a few things in the process. Colonialism was theft.
However, that does not absolve everybody else of the responsibility for the things that happened after colonialism… Even though we’re formed out of theft and destruction…
Inevitably; we are the products of sin.
We are the products of sin. Nevertheless, we have to be alive to where we are, to who we are… The work of functioning together in this complicated space is something that we just have to do.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This piece originally misstated Teju Cole’s graduate degrees. We regret the error!