The Afronauts became one of the most talked about photo books of 2012, reaching the shortlist of the renowned Deutsche Börse Prize and showing up in almost every list of last year’s best photo books. Yet how did it come to be that this self-published book from Cristina de Middel, full of constructed surreal pictures of the 1964 Zambian space program, containing elephants, colourful spacesuits and beautiful hair dresses, managed to garner such attention and acclaim?
First of all, was there a Zambian space program in the heyday of the space race between the Soviets and Americans? Well, of course not; at least not a serious program. In actuality, a rather eccentric school teacher, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, single-handedly started a space program to put the first African on the moon. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding and one of the astronauts, a teenage girl, becoming pregnant, the program came to an end before the Zambian dream of reaching space could be realized. Although the program attracted some media coverage, it ultimately didn’t become a significant part of African history.
Taking this awkward story as the basis for her book, Spanish photojournalist Cristina de Middel rebuilds the events and adapts it to her personal imagery. She combines her photos with digitally altered found photos sequenced alongside simulated documents and her own artwork printed on translucent pages similar to vellum used for technical drawings. All these different parts work together wonderfully, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
By using this highly subjective re-enactment approach to portray these historical events, thereby playing with myths and truths, De Middel’s book balances between a well-designed artist book and a kind of historical docudrama.
The book is funny, striking and even thought-provoking. It may be possible to accuse De Middel of mocking Makuka Nkoloso and ridiculing the idea of Africans on the moon. But, according to De Middel, her work "hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices".
De Middel could easily have taken the approach of making fun of these people by focussing on a visually realistic re-creation of the naive and reckless aspects of Makuka Nkoloso’s space program. Yet instead, because she chose to show the reader a loving fictional portrait of a national dream, she offers another – unexpected - take on Africa.
So back to the question: why has a photo book on such a small, obscure subject become so widely discussed? When the book was published in May 2012, on the occasion of the exhibition The Afronauts at Sala Kursala in Spain, there weren’t many pictures available of the book itself. Only some photographs extracted from the book could be viewed on the artist’s website. So, it’s likely that many of the people appraising the publication initially learned about it by word of mouth. Perhaps, precisely because of the absence of this context, expectations were boosted. Soon the book became the biggest buzz at several photo festivals.
Yet, regardless of the hype, The Afronauts is actually great in several ways. De Middel’s narrative, which crosses the border between reality and fiction, did appeal to many readers. Not only because of the beautiful story and its great photographs, but even more because of the way this story has been told in an amazingly designed book. It has been a truly significant achievement to have a self-published book, with an edition run of 1000 copies, sold out completely. One might wonder if this (unexpected) success will prompt another edition run. The Afronauts certainly deserves it.
The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel was included in the books section of GUP #34, What We Like². To learn more about Cristina de Middel, read our interview with her, or see our online portfolio of her recent project Made In.