A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.


Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

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