Xanadu, Where Are You?

Can we venture to say that most, if not all of us have at one point or another simply wished to be at some place other than where we find ourselves for one reason or another; to escape to that place they call Xanadu. Using our imagination and fantasies to avoid our reality is something we probably all start to do perhaps as children regardless of where we are. No wonder Walt Disney became so successful with Disneyland.

The usage of idyllic backdrops, fabrics, costumes, decorations and props and such in photo portraiture is something documented in various countries across the continent of Africa. Orchestrating an image that somehow seems nicer than reality possibly. Such styles of photography have been present in Mali, Burkino Faso, Ghana, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa (*see note below) and could very well likely be present in other places too .

There was a moment during the 1970’s – 80’s in North America, where one would see bedrooms wallpapered with those idyllic sceneries and even the classic K-mart or Sears photo studios that had those family portrait packages that used backdrops of sunsets, forests, unicorns, the Milky Way or some other fantastical view. Though the aesthetic may seem rather kitsch, there is still that common thread where people desire to place themselves in a context they find joyous, far removed from the toils of their daily lives. Take for example, apple computer’s software, Photo Booth, it lets you magically place yourself in some other situation.

Dutch artist and photographer, Andrea Stultiens takes a look at this particular juncture of portraiture photography and fantastical backdrops as found in the East African nation of Uganda in her book titled Pose (Ugandan Images). At first look the images appear nostalgic and soft, with a texture similar to photos that have aged with time and exposure. However, her photographs speak to the deeper issue of socio-economics, of the haves and the have nots. About how people who are unable to take vacations, resort to portraiture to transport themselves to their idyllic holiday spot, by the river, overlooking the sea etc. for that touristy snapshot that they can look on throughout the year.

Desire regardless of what form it takes is something influenced by our environment. Stultiens focuses on this area, this space where we take control of that environment and how we then “mould it into a fictional variant of ‘real life’ “and use photography to document it for posterity. ‘Pose’ is quite subtle yet very effective in beautifully illustrating this need to create a dream version of life that somehow looks more pretty.

Pose (Ugandan Images)


Pose (Ugandan Images)


Pose (Ugandan Images)


Pose (Ugandan Images)

Pose (Ugandan Images)



African photographers that have used backdrops to stage their portraits to name a few include Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibe, contemporary Burkinabé photographer Germain Kiemtoré, Ghanian artist, Philip Kwame Apagya, Cameroonian photographer and artist Samuel Fosso have both also used these tools in their art. In the Southern part of the continent, designer and photographer, Garth Walker from South Africa has collected an archive of photographs from photo studios with these very same idyllic backdrops and another South African photographer, David Southwood documented these same types of studios in his show titled Studio Interiors, 2001.

Pose (Ugandan Images)


Andrea Stultiens does things with photographs. She makes them, collects them, looks at them, thinks and writes about them, and sometimes she makes the results of this visible for the rest of the world. Her favourite medium to present her work is through books. They give her the opportunity to tell the story in an intimate way, literally one on one with the reader.

Stultiens is interested in understanding more about the relationship between Europe and [East] Africa through photographic narrative. Pose (Uganda Images) is one of these projects.


All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.

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