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Ongoing Imperial Visual Currency

Questions of authorized, comprehensive, and credible interpretation represent the foundation of emerging scholarship in historical studies that gives priority to visual records more so than to written texts as primary research sources. Learning and teaching how to look at past as well as present visual representations of the word require a continuous social and cultural apprenticeship and, most importantly, an unrelenting alertness to signs of visual priming—the way one learns how to visually decode social, racial and cultural dynamics and networks. The process of visual priming is often responsible with the subtle dissemination of particular systems of beliefs that, although considered today offensive, politically incorrect and dangerously damaging to global policies for human rights, equality, and peace, remain in place by the sheer force of the visual rhetoric present in contemporary educational and/or entertaining images. For instance, the racially reductionist portrayal of African people in William T. Maud’s A Peek at the Natives is dismissed today based on the double assumption that the artwork was representative of the late nineteenth-century popular imperial culture,12 and that the artist has not meant it as a caricature of his European contemporaries’ racial and cultural chauvinism.

Given that there is almost never a fixed reading of a visual record, but an interpretative framework dictated by the image’s specific means of production, distribution, and reception, the study of such visual records showing scenes from international colonial exhibitions remains rich with variegated interpretations of contextual meanings and ideological agendas. While it is perhaps customary to dismiss imperial visual culture as racially offensive by default it becomes a challenging task to apply the same interpretative scrutiny to late twenty- and early twenty-first century visual representations of race across educational or popular media programs. The process of visual priming employed across popular imperial culture is also at work in contemporary images that were meant as a social and racial critique, whether in print or as online educational tools for historical studies.

Dating probably to the mid-1980s, a postcard from the British Library collections shows the map of Australia divided in two uneven parts. The right side, titled ‘Territory still to be explored’, includes the sketch of an Aborigine man sitting on the ground in front of a fire, legs crossed, boomerang and several spears behind him. The left side of the postcard is much smaller and includes several drawings of a kangaroo, a black swan, a lobster, a large plane, a brigantine (two-masted ship), a large cargo ship, and Perth’s skyline.13 A humorous visual rhetoric seems to feed this comparative narrative in which most of the continent is dismissed as prehistoric, unexplored, and delineated by a non-negotiable straight border line. This visual narrative, comical effect aside, replicates as well as fits into the tradition of British imperial iconography of the antipodes: clear symbols of imperial/global trade, vast natural resources, and uncharted, primitive (racial) wilderness. Thus, it could be argued that the visual priming driving the popular colonial visual culture continued to inform late twentieth-century post-colonial Australian self-representations of regional and racial identities.

Furthermore, online outreach programs such as Learning Curve organized by the British National Archives offer thought-provoking examples of how visual research methods can help historians decipher the ways in which the process of visual priming continues to buttress ongoing imperial trends in misrepresenting racial and cultural hierarchies. Under the headline ‘The Victorians. What Was the British Empire?’, the online students are asked to undertake a four-step exercise: to Look at the image (‘Describe what you can see’), to Ask (‘What questions do you need to ask, and answer, to make sense of what you have seen?), to Conclude (‘What have you learned about the British Empire from this source?’), and to Expand (‘What more would you like to know. How can you find out?’). One of the images chosen as a case study is that of a painted and inlays decorated biscuit tin with its central description of dark-skinned men wearing turbans and shalwars, carrying swords and riding elephants.14 Anyone looking at this image, whether in the early 1900s or in mid-2010s, would notice clear visual indicators of imperial iconography and racial stereotypifications—all generally accepted in Victorian times and visually primed for today’s audiences as acceptable historical validations of racial and cultural hierarchies. The images on the painted biscuit tin continue thus to be commodified within British/Western contemporary popular culture, first as symbols of South Asian identity and second, as fixtures of an exoticized, fabled imperial context: the visual identity of the British Empire a la Rudyard Kipling, once again.

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