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Samuel Fosso, Self-Portraits as Mao Zedong, from the series Emperor of Africa, 2013 (all images via Aperture)

This series is an amazing critique on China’s imperialist expansion across the African continent by Cameroonian photographer, Samuel Fosso. When I saw the project, I was blown away by how the critique it levies evokes Chinese CCP propaganda which featured Africans in the 60s as well.

Two examples of that propaganda are below:

While ostensibly evoking warm amicable feelings of solidarity between Chinese and African people, there is a strong racist paternalistic undercurrent in much of this propaganda. While denouncing white, western imperialism, Chinese CCP propaganda replaced a white savior with a Chinese savior in the image of Chairman Mao. This is most clearly depicted in the following piece of propaganda, titled simply “Savior”:

In much of this propaganda, Africans were rendered with little agency beyond what they could muster following the lead of China and Chairman Mao in particular. He was the “Savior” for Africans that we supposedly needed in the stead of the white saviors who had come before them. 

Fosso ingeniously subverts this imagery of Mao as a savior and emperor of the African continent through this self-portraiture series. And his series is incredibly relevant as we are currently witnessing China’s imperialist pursuits metastasize across the continent. As Arundhati Roy says, there are two tools of global imperialism and corporate globalization, the “check book” and the “cruise missile.” 

As she says in The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile:

Once you understand the process of corporate globalization, you have to see that what happened in Argentina, the devastation of Argentina by the IMF, is part of the same machine that is destroying Iraq. Both are efforts to break open and to control markets. And so Argentina is destroyed by the chequebook, and Iraq is destroyed by the cruise missile. If the chequebook won’t work, the cruise missile will. Hell hath no fury like a market scorned.

Although China’s expansion across the African continent has not been with the cruise missile, it has deftly used its check book to the same effect- coming to economically dominate many African countries with its interests in our natural resources. To date, more than 2,000 Chinese companies have now invested in African countries. Furthermore, although there is not a firm number on the scale of these investments, Tian Xuejun, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa in 2012 stated that these investments exceeded $40 billion. 

[Chinese President Xi Jinping is greeted by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as he arrives on Dec. 1, 2015, in Harare. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP), Image via Washington Post]

Despite the rampant human rights abuses documented at some Chinese operations on the African continent, many of our corrupt African leaders continue to welcome China (and its checkbook) with open arms. And now after years of encroachment, the imperialist nature of the “economic work” China is doing on the continent, if not apparent earlier, has become obvious. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Chinese government provided more than $1 billion in low interest loans to that government over the last few years. After this, just last year in December of 2015, Zimbabwe officially announced plans to adopt China’s currency the yuan, as its own, in exchange for the cancelation of $40 million of debt. Zimbabwe has therefore effectively become an economic vassal state of China. And similar economic expansionist efforts by the Chinese government are not just happening in Zimbabwe, but in many other African countries as well.

This idea of a Chinese “emperor” of the African continent is therefore not far fetched- in fact it’s becoming an increasing reality as China uses its checkbook to expand its influence and subjugate the continent. Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s former central bank governor, said that Africa is opening itself up to a “new form of imperialism”, in which China takes African raw materials and sells back manufactured goods without transferring skills, just like the European colonial masters of yore (x). So effectively little has changed, besides the face of the imperialist in question. And this is the exact critique that Fosso so brilliantly levies in this self-portrait series as the “Emperor of Africa.”

And it should go without saying but- no, this is not “yellow face,” as we must contextualize this series within the power relationships of the African continent where China is an imperialist force. Fosso’s critique of these power relationships is not only relevant but incredibly necessary.  

Learn more about Fosso’s project “Emperor of Africa”: Here.

Related Posts:

+ Africans in Chinese Communist Propaganda

+ The History of Anti-African Protests in Chinese Universities 

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