Cristina de Middel, The Afronauts @Dillon

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the entry area and the main gallery space. All of the works are digital c-prints; no dates were provided on the checklist. 20 of the prints were shown in a 39×39 size (in editions of 5+2AP), while the other 15 were shown in a 12×12 size (also in editions of 5+2AP). The installation also includes 10 black and white images in various sizes, unframed and pinned directly to the wall, as well as fabric items (a space suit, a rocket, and a planted flag near the doorway). A monograph of this body of work was self published in 2012. (Installation shots below).

Comments/Context: The unlikely story of Cristina de Middel’s photobook The Afronauts has become something of a legend. Self published in 2012, the book went on to be a finalist for the Deutsche Borse prize in 2013 and to win the ICP Infinity Award for Publication that same year. Along the way, the book sold out quickly and developed a surprisingly pricey secondary market (current price on Amazon – $2200 to $4000), so much so that the artist admitted that she could no longer afford to purchase her own book.

For those like myself who never had a chance to see the book in person, this gallery exhibit offers an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. Starting with the actual but forgotten mid-1960s effort by Zambia to build a space program and put an astronaut on the moon, de Middel has created a fully self-contained visual narrative, mixing fact and fiction into a compelling pseudo-documentary. The installation is a dense mix of photographs large and small, interleaved with letters, newspaper articles, grainy manipulated black and white images, and various props made from patterned African fabrics, all coming together to construct a complete and internally consistent story telling environment.

I think what makes The Afronauts so successful is that de Middel has found just the right balance of mood, where the narrative feels like a fairy tale, full of endearing optimism and hopeful dreams. Many of her images turn on the subtle genius of her makeshift spacesuits, with their bright African patterns, their fish bowl glass helmets and their duct tape construction; the digram that shows the coconut water backpack is cleverly absurd. Zambian astronauts in their spacesuits trudge along dusty hillsides, stand proudly on rusty space capsules (concrete mixing drums with colorful patterns), and interact with a curious elephant. The archival material walks the delicate line of fantastic plausibility, from the alien corpse and the blurry photos of space suited men in villages, to the kids dancing (with a nod to Sidibe) in space helmets. Boys dream of adventure in the stars and sit at outdated control panels, flanked by the smiley face flag and a groovy jumping explosion with a spaceman at the center.

Seen together, de Middel’s reconstruction is both easy to like and conceptually complex. The project deftly plays with the documentary nature of photography and its claims on truth, while telling us a story full of grand aspirations and quiet affection. While there is humor here, the project isn’t an ironic or cutting mockumentary; instead it finds a way to embrace us with its unexpected quirkiness. Mostly, it reminded me of the power of smartly honed artistic imagination, where thinking differently can produce subtle contagious joy.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size, in ratcheting editions. The 12×12 prints range from $1000 to $3000, while the 39×39 prints range from $5000 to $12000. A serigraph portfolio is available for $4000 (in an edition of 20) and a museum portfolio containing 20 large, 20 small, and various  documents and ephemera is available for $95000. De Middel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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