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In the 1960s, while the United States and the Soviet Union were playing out their battle of who would make it to the moon first and so dominate the galactic skies, a former high school teacher in Zambia decided his country needed a space program. Edward Festus Makuka Nkoloso founded the unofficial Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy in 1960, and over the course of the next few years, attempted to launch the first Afronaut — his term —into space. One of the chosen cadets was 17-year-old Matha Mwambwa, along with two cats, but she never made it very far due to a lack of funds and equipment, as well as the fact that she became pregnant.
The improvised Zambian space program was, you might say, a footnote in history — but a welcome one for its delightful messing with the dominant Cold War narrative. I first learned about it at the Studio Museum in Harlem earlier this month, where I saw several photographs from Spanish artist Cristina De Middel‘s Afronauts series as part of The Shadows Took Shape exhibition. Departing from this little-known historical truth, De Middel’s pictures take on a romantic and whimsical life of their own. They are staged re-creations, imaginations, and appropriations of historical documents that capture the technical impossibility of Nkoloso’s dream as well as what must have been his animating spirit.
The Afronauts series was shown at Dillon Gallery in New York last fall and self-published by De Middel as a now out-of-print book, which won the 2013 ICP Infinity Award for Publication. De Middel also seems to be at work on a film related to the project, while, coincidentally, another film about the Afronauts by Brooklyn-based Nuotama Frances Bodomo premiered at Sundance this past January (after being funded on Kickstarter). Bodomo’s work is also a fictionalization, from the point of view of Mwambwa; the black-and-white short seems, based on its trailer, a bit more earnest than De Middel’s photos. But both artists have latched onto a historical nugget that, in its fleetingness, also opens up a kind of void. Both artists, in De Middel’s words, “start from a real fact that took place 50 years ago and rebuild the documents, adapting them to my personal imagery.”
What follows is a selection of images from De Middel’s The Afronauts.