It was 1964, and Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso had a dream.
Mr. Nkoloso dreamed that his newly independent country would make its mark on the rest of the world in a way that could never be forgotten.
Three years before, the Soviets had put a man in space. A week after that, the American President Kennedy promised that the USA would be the first to set foot on the moon.
Zambia would do the world powers one better. The Zambians were going to Mars.
Nkoloso took the first step without consulting his government — which was busy planning Independence festivities — and created the National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy (NASSRP?). He recruited astronauts and began weightlessness training by hurling them down hillsides in an empty oil drum.
This may seem primitive, but if you look at footage of NASA and the Apollo program from the same era, things aren’t a whole lot more advanced. There’s an element of the Cargo Cult in Nkoloso’s editorials from the period, but if you think about it, there’s an element of the Cargo Cult in the early Space Age as a whole. The US could never have won the space race without German scientists who brought rocket technology to the table in exchange for having their Nazi connections erased from history. Seen with 21st century eyes, we got to the moon on firecrackers and tin foil.
What America had that Zambia didn’t was aesthetics: Tang, aerosol cans, go-go boots, and the bee-hive hairdo. I’m not even sure the Soviets had that much. If it looks like you can do something, then people will believe you can do it. The funding comes rolling in. Next thing you know, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are on prime time TV, in color. You’ve sold your mission to the stars like a sweat-shop designer handbag. One small step. One giant leap.
But Zambia didn’t have silver lamé miniskirts or a Space Western in the network TV lineup. Nobody was going to be fooled. And so, when the world reported on Edward Nkolosa’s astronaut training regimen, it did so in the form of a colonialist joke.
More than fifty years later, Spanish artist Cristina De Middel isn’t laughing. After discovering the Zambian space program through old British news footage (what can’t you find in old BBC documentaries?), she has created a series of photographs that explore ideas of the future, the past, stereotype, and image, all surrounding the aesthetic of the Zambian Astronaut.
The Afronaut series, which De Middel hopes to publish as a book, seems on the surface to participate in the joke of the Zambian on Mars. Black men wear space suits accessorized with raffia, pose with elephants, and stride through tall grasses bathed in bright sunlight. Afro hairstyles poke out of the front of their helmets.
But looking deeper, it’s obvious that De Middel is in on it. The poses are too reminiscent of Keith Haring’s cartoon space men not to be a reference to the astronaut as visual code for Infinity And Beyond. The elephant photos are juxtaposed with shots of an alien autopsy. The astronauts’ gloved hands probe; what is this strange creature? What is this bizarre sun-baked moonscape?
After all, what’s more primitive than a man being shot into the sky on the back of a giant bomb?