The Reimagination of Sight

TJ Benson

“History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

I first became interested in how we see things when I noticed that there was a pattern in the images I created – what my colleagues were calling ‘personal style’. They believed in the ‘photographer’s eye’ which was specific to every practicing photographer and explained why we came out of the same photo-walks and shooting sessions with different results. They believed we all have different ways of seeing and this in turn shaped the kind of photographers we would become. This struck me, and I got the idea to start reimagining eyewear, to examine how the paraphernalia we construct to view the world ends up shaping us.

The first pair of eyewear was made in Northern Italy around 1290. The Dominican Friar Giordano da Pisa had declared ‘it is not 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses which makes for good vision…’ From this sermon, delivered on 23rd February 1306, we learn that first and foremost the making of ‘seeing apparatus’ was an art that made for good vision. It is interesting to note that successful inventors of this ‘art’ developed it to meet their personal needs over the years. Benjamin Franklin suffered myopia & presbyopia, so he invented bifocals. In this way, ways of seeing are invented or created to adapt to or suit a people’s needs. This is what technology is about, always evolving to the needs of the people. 

The older generation has always had a fixed perception on things but technology always opens us to new ways of life. The elderly model in a reclining chair looking up is a blacksmith by profession and lost his vision in one eye from a work accident. I had to get him to model the eyewear reimagined with nuts to depict the quick adaptation of our elders to European technology with the arrival of colonial masters.

This new tech also came at an expense, upended our culture so our traditional ways of life was lost and our spiritual artifacts ended up being stolen for ticketed display in museums all over the world. I tried to depict this commodification of our cultural artifacts and experiences in the image of a boy wearing eyewear reimagined with cowries. The image also captures a recent positive turn; within the last decade young people have begun the education that wasn’t given to them with modern tools like the internet. They have started learning about their histories, to separate what is actually true from the pseudo-African culture, short sighted people always refer us to in leaps of ignorance, most of it a Victorian-era import shipped in by colonial masters and preserved through neocolonialism. Modern artists are beginning to call for the return of these cultural artifacts to their countries, but all this had to follow our re-education. I believe this, more than any slogan or chant or agenda will give us a sense of identity and belonging to any African nation state. Culture must evolve but there would always be lessons to learn when we look back to the past, to our older ways of life.

In ‘Mama WhatsApp’ I tried to reveal the typical African mother we are all familiar with, the mother who has realised tech will claim her children and so returned to the same tech to keep in touch with them. To her bewilderment, phone calls with her children now require definite causes but on WhatsApp she can bombard them with the most random messages like prayer points, warnings on which consumable products will have link to the satanic kingdom and instructions on what to do at the end of the world. As of 2017, there was a general (if amused) outcry on platforms these mothers didn’t use like Twitter (Facebook had long been infiltrated) by their millennial children and some advised that mothers be blocked. Others advocated for a softer approach, perhaps breaching the subject before blocking. A mother however will always find a way to reach her children.

Our ways of seeing affect how we handle mental health issues too, as shown in the self-photograph. Apart from the stigma of being tagged crazy, fear of hospitalisation is another major reason people fear addressing their mental health issues. The needles, the pills, the loss of control, drowsiness, low productivity… These things vary, depending on your diagnosis. Religion may serve as a panacea, but in the end we are the ones who have to deal with our minds and try to fall asleep.

In the photo of the young man wearing the eyewear reimagined with nuts, I considered technology as the only escape young people have from their failing governments. As institutions meant to uphold and serve the youth in most African countries (especially Nigeria) plunged even further into rot in the last decade, many innovations have emerged at local levels.

All images in the series have a backdrop of black and white striped fabric which represents the flow and constancy of time to me. In criticism, some have classified this series as African futurism. I am delighted, because African futurism to me means there is African culture in the future. Culture will continue to evolve and keep up with advancement in technology, and this I think is one major tenet of African futurism that even on a rural level, communities throughout Africa will continue to adapt technological advancement to their everyday life and in so doing, become gradually changed by it.

TJ Benson is a Nigerian writer and visual artist whose work has been exhibited across Nigerian cities and published in several journals like Jalada, Transition, Catapult and Gay Magazine. His collection of stories titled ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ was published in 2018 and his debut novel ‘The Madhouse’ is set to be released by Penguin Random House SA and Masobe Books in 2020.