Last Thursday, the entire family went to the national museum for the opening of Donn’s show.
The White Muluffa; © Donn Anning Jones, 2001
This is Donn’s first gallery exhibition since we moved here. Mauritania is hard to photograph for many reasons; first of all the simple reason that it is technically illegal to photograph on the streets in much of the city. I remember Donn once showing our friend Abdel Khaliq a book he has of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Paris. “What would you think of such a book on Mauritania?” he asked.
The answer was unequivocal. “Oh I’d be so embarrassed!” said Abdel Khaliq. “What if someone from my family or tribe saw it? It’d be terrible.” He went on to explain that you photograph objects—animals or things—not people. To photograph people is to treat them like animals.
Donn was stunned. He asked several other friends and got similar answers. It’s hard enough to photograph in a place like this, where the light is so extreme and the glare so harsh, and the miniscule particles of sand swirl merrily into the microscopic cracks and add a year to the life of any photo equipment with each usage. Add to that people’s reluctance to be photographed, suspicion of photographers, and the fact that you can technically be arrested and have your equipment confiscated, and it’s no surprise that his body of work from Mauritania is quite small.
What with one thing and another, he hasn’t really tried to publicize his work here. He was supposed to have a show at the Moroccan Cultural Center in Spring 2003, but then the US started bombing Iraq, and the curator just kept pushing the date further and further back, until at last it was dropped entirely. So we were both happy when he was invited to have this show at the National Museum.
But I, at least, wasn’t expecting much. The show was supposed to open on Friday April 27, but they moved the opening back because the museum is closed on Friday afternoons and evenings for prayers, along with most of the rest of the country. “You can have refreshments at the opening if you want,” they told us, “But you have to provide them.” Ok fine. And who would come? Probably not many people.
I spent Thursday afternoon making a big double batch of chocolate chip cookies, and we bought packaged biscuits too, and some Cokes and juice. Donn had already hung the photos round the walls of a big, well-lit room. We were pleasantly surprised when the museum provided some drinks and refreshments too. A green and gold ribbon (Mauritania’s colours) was draped across the door, but this being Africa, the opening time came and went without anything really happening. Eventually, about 45 minutes late, things started.
First the Director of the Museum made a very nice speech about the exhibit being Mauritania as seen through the eyes of a foreigner and yet being like Mauritanians see themselves. Then the acting US Ambassador made a nice speech about Americans being few in number here and yet very involved. Then Donn made a nice, short speech thanking people for coming and talking about what photography means to him. Then the Mayor of Nouakchott cut the ribbon. It was all very nice. I had no idea dignitaries were coming, so that was fun. Donn’s had gallery shows and been involved in group shows in museums in the US, but we have never had such an impressive turn-out! I hope they buy some photos!
Donn in his pointy white Moroccan slippers with some of the other official people.
Elliot was impressed with all the fuss being made over his father’s photos, the ones that usually fill the walls of our home and are therefore nothing special. “You know, Dad, with your photos on the walls at home, I don’t really notice them. But here, with everyone looking at them, I’m starting to notice them.”
“Changed your mind about becoming a photographer?” Donn joked with him.
“It’s already too late for me,” he replied with utmost seriousness.
I pointed out to him that he’s 11. Still in primary school. Basically, NOTHING is too late for him just yet. “But I already have my passion for history,” he shrugged. It was over; he’d made his decision at age 9, and even though the golden-edged path to Fame and a Show at the National Museum in Nouakchott (which is practically New York—it’s the New York of Mauritania!) beckoned, he stood firm.
But you could see the regret in his eyes, as he glanced at the ends of ribbon flapping in the breeze from the fans, and watched some French woman gushing at Donn about how she ADORES “noir et blanc”; regret for the road not taken.