Stuart Franklin, President of Magnum Photos, has just published a book of photographs taken in and around hotels in Africa. He agreed to be interviewed about Hotel Afrique for Art and Allusion.
Nigel : Why did you focus on hotels for this project?
Stuart: I wanted there to be a tension between the inside of the hotel - often plush, and set out according to international standards - with the locally specific exterior. Sometimes these tensions collide, as in the photograph of the English-style armchairs in a tent in the Serengeti. Here the landscape is seen through the mosquito netting. Sometimes the exteriors is seen through the wall of the hotel, as in Zanzibar where people cavorting on the beach are frozen in the circular patterns of the hotel fence.
Nigel: What special qualities do they have that reveal important aspects of Africa?
Stuart: Well the interiors mostly depict a hybrid space between global design and local culture, so that there are African woodcarvings or paintings set amongst international hotel culture.
Nigel: What would you say to someone who thought you were aestheticizing elements of Africa, focussing on surface visual juxtapositions rather than the more sinister aspects of corruption, violence and crime?
Stuart: I'd say they were right, although I hope that the scent of corruption is evident in some of the photographs, especially from Niger.
Nigel: Could you pick out one of your favourite images, describe it, and say what you were trying to do with the photograph.
Stuart: I have two favourite photographs - the man putting on a tie for the first time to go to work in a hotel in Accra, and the photograph, shot through a window, of men by a pool and cars
streaming down a highway in Abidjan. I'll talk about this picture. For me it works on two levels.
Hotels engage with a form of persuasive representation that will always seek to hide any faults (in the hotel itself or environment) and play up anything positive even if not quite true. Here I am reminded of hotel ads that claim to have stunning views beside the beach and omit the 6 lane highway just outside. The same with swimming pools: they should never look over a motorway. On another level the image shows these white (I am guessing) business visitors in the pool. The space they enjoy is small and discrete, almost like birds in tree above the regular ebb and flow of human activity. Here I sought to make clear this separation between the people in the picture and the rest of Africa - a distance they themselves seek..
Nigel: Africa is very diverse...
Nigel: What is your next project? A book to be called 'Footprint' on the changing landscape of Europe in the face of climate change. [Some of the images from this project are available from www.stuartfranklin.com]
Michael Camille was an art historian who died far too young (read an obituary of this remarkable man). He was extremely prolific, buzzing with ideas about his specialism Gothic Art. He was also a dear friend. My favourite
of his books is Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. He wanted to call it 'Genitalia in Marginalia' which about sums up the theme. Once you've read this book it is very difficult to think about medieval art falling into discrete categories of the sacred and the profane. His key idea is this:
'the art of the Middle Ages was not a sombre expression of social unity and transcendent order. Rather, it was rooted in the conflicted life of the body with all its somatic as well as spiritual possibilities.'
Camille's subject is whatever is found at the edge: the bizarre figures defecating, copulating, larking around in the margins of medieval manuscripts and in the sculpture on medieval churches and cathedrals. The captions to the illustrations in the book reveal just how subversive some of these images on the edge could be: 'Alexander battles a dragon', 'naked boys tilt at a barrel', 'a lady worships at the altar of the anus' or, one of Camille's personal favourites 'Nun picking penises from phallus-tree'. Some of them are simply weird: 'Bells, simian seals and vomited coins'; others seem to be stream of consciousness doodlings or personal jokes.
If you are looking for simple explanations of the meaning of these images, Camille won't enlighten you: as he explains in his preface, his approach is exploratory, deliberately eclectic in methodology, he wanted it to be as monstrous as its subject matter. This open-ended joyful book is the perfect marriage of subject matter and writer.