Mediating racial images 2

The referenced illustrated article, published in a high-quality Ullstein magazine, is an example of how Ross adapted himself to diverse segments of his potential audience and what additional layers of interpretation were given to his “lecture film” Die erwachende Sphinx as well as to the eponymous book (see also Mediating racial images 1).

Ross rounds out his image as a geopolitical travelogue lecturer and journalist by making a name for himself as an up-to-date specialist on female bodily practices, health, and fashion. Elaborating on the appearance, the everyday and professional life, and the sexual  habits of the “negro girl” he presents his ‘subject’ as being equal to, or even more progressive than, women in Europe. However, he also draws on comparisons and formulas predicated on the racial inferiority of black women and, in general, that of Africa’s indigenous populations. In contrast to the lectures that accompanied the film, the notion of race is implicitly and pre-eminently applied to corporeal and habitual determinants. However, the latter, i.e. the socially and historically inscribed characteristics of everyday conduct, also appear as relational. Ross points to the more developed ‘black’ language of dance and the emancipation of the black work force, familiar from his earlier publications and films on Africa. The comparisons Ross makes cannot be interpreted as a one-way strategy, because in one case he considers the black and in the other the white as underdeveloped or primitive. In other words, for social and everyday practices (work, nurture, dance, dress, etc.) there is a shift in favor of the one or the other depending on the one Ross chooses. Within these practices the criteria or characterizations ("good dance") he applies remain relational, because they ‘correct’ each other.

Ross’s claims are particularly of interest with regard to his exhaustive eyewitness account of a Kikuyu tribe’s FMG ritual (both the film and the book are rich in detail, but, judging from the Urania typescript and the German and Austrian reviews, the lectures were more restrained). Even if Ross does not explicitly comment on female circumcision as a social/biopolitical institution foreign to Western civilization, the Uhu-article is a counterweight to the relevant book chapter and the quite candid film sequences in which Ross acts as the proverbial Western, colonial voyeur headstrongly disregarding the ritual’s ban on male attendance.   

The article is, moreover, a specific example of how Ross’s photos appeared in the press. In general, Ross illustrated his magazine articles with his own photos and seems to have insisted on the unity of image and text (he normally did not allow his photos to be published separately). Here, however, he broke with this habit and used pictures by his rival Hugo Bernatzik and others; the reason, perhaps, was that he simply had not made any high-quality images of ‘idealized’ black female figures during his African journey.

Katalin Teller

Colin Ross. Das junge Mädchen in Afrika. Uhu: 1927-1928; 4 (H. 4); 38-46,

Topic: Race
Case: Speaking engagements

Scroll to page top