“We have been daguerreotyping like lions.” Horace Vernet
The first documented photograph taken on the African continent dates from November 7, 1839, merely three months after France’s introduced the daguerreotype camera to the world. The photo was taken in Alexandria by French painter Horace Vernet who captured the exterior of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s palace harem. Even though there was nothing erotic about the image, it became a sensation in Paris by igniting fantasies about what French viewers envisioned as a suggestive subject matter.
Heba Y. Amin’s exhibition A Rectilinear Propagation of Thought addresses the ways in which the colonial imagination has objectified vulnerable bodies, especially those of women, through the invasive gaze of optical tools. The artworks invoke mechanisms of domination and control through methods of surveying land and systems of surveillance. The exhibition interrogates the politics of technology, particularly on the African continent, and examines the mechanics of observation in relation to technological mediation. The title, A Rectilinear Propagation of Thought, references one of the fundamental laws of geometric optics which explains how vision works and takes its cue from medieval Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham’s philosophy on perception as a framework to question ways of seeing and the positions of power.
The exhibition elaborates on The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid, a project the artist has been developing since 2014 which utilizes Al-Bakri’s The Book of Roads and Kingdoms (Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik), an eleventh-century geography text and first comprehensive description of major trade routes in West Africa under the Islamic Empire. By contrast to Al-Bakri, who never visited West Africa himself, Amin embarked on a five-month journey along the same routes using the fragments of his book as a guide. The project criticizes the authored accounts of merchants, traders and travelers who describe geographies through sexually explicit descriptions of the women they encounter.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with an introduction by Lotte Laub, an essay by William Kherbek, and features an interview by Heba Y. Amin with Jill Magid.