Anonymity and the Zulu Policeman: An Economy of Portraiture

Presented by Hlonipha Mokoena

Monday, 22 July, 2013 - 15:00

Although it is not surprising to find that the colonial archive is replete with pictures of Africans who were employed as policemen, soldiers and mercenaries, it is more surprising to find these types of photographs in private family albums or on sale as postcards. What these two archives have in common is that in both, the “Native” or “Zulu” policeman is an anonymous subject. This paper is an attempt to give meaning to this anonymity. It is situated at the intersection of the visual record of conquest and colonial expansion and the aesthetic cultures, desires and curiosities that accompanied the arrival of the camera in southern Africa. It will explore the possibility that although labelled by the nondescript “Zulu Policeman”, many of these subjects posed for the photographs in ways that suggest that they wanted to assert their individuality. For the Zulu Policeman the boundary between the visible and the invisible was demarcated by the supposed authority conferred on them by their state-issued uniform in a social context where the same uniform marked them as the nemesis of the educated and urban Africans whom they were meant to survey. By being positioned in this way the Zulu Policeman was meant to visibly embody the power of the state while also implicitly signifying the allure of Zulu masculinity that was now being harnessed for policing rather than the defunct regimental discipline. The paper will thus question the oft-repeated assumption that it was only the mission – and its ideology of “respectability” – that forced or tempted Africans towards sartorial correctness and innovation. The image and career of the Zulu Policeman suggests that the state, or at least its military and policing apparatuses, participated in an economy of clothing consumption and thereby gave value to the uniforms it issued to its African employees. This economy of consumption, it will be argued, had the unintended consequence of producing a more spectacular and sometimes brightly coloured economy of portraiture in which tourists, travellers and settlers purchased, sold and posted pictures of Zulu policemen.

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