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Meet the Afronauts

fairweather enterprises

EVAN HUGHES on a documentary photographer who blurs the lines between truth and fancy to create a surreal, imaginative retelling of a stranger-than-fiction African space program.

Fifty years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a well-publicized “space race” that included satellites, manned space flights, and, of course, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, which culmi- nated in the moon landing in July 1969. But there was another, lesser-known contender in the space race: the newly independent African nation of Zambia.

Reaching for the Stars

In 1964, a Zambian grade-school science teacher declared that he was establishinga space academy with the goal of sending a young woman, two cats, and a missionary to Mars. When an application for $7 million in

funding from UNESCO never materialized, the little space program that could sputtered. Today, the whole enterprise is shrouded in myth and mystery.

Fictional Documentation

For an artist fascinated by strange-but-true stories, the Zambian space program was an inspiration. Christina De Middel, a Span- ish photographer with a decade of news photography behind her, created a fictional documentation of that long-ago Zambian space program, featuring dreamy, unexpect- edly haunting images of the “Afronauts.” De Middel’s series and self-published book of the same name have been celebrated and short-listed in the art world, including the ICP Infinity Prize in 2013, and shown in gal- leries and museums all over the world.

A Haunting Photo Series

De Middel’s series is intentionally mysteri- ous, blending the fanciful with the factual. Elephants and cats appear, as do oil drums. (Reportedly, the Zambian space program prepared its prospective astronauts for the rigors of zero-gravity by placing them in oil drums and rolling them down a steep hill.)

Her experience as a documentary photogra- pher for Spanish newspapers and for NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders and the Spanish Red Cross allows her to play with the language of photography in a way that forces the viewer to question the veracity of what they are seeing. In this respect, Afronauts may remind some viewers of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist documentary film Land Without Bread. But where Buñuel could be satirical, De Middel’s approach is always warm and affectionate. Though that long-ago space program never took off, the Afronauts series speaks to the very human urge to exceed our limitations. As De Middel has noted, “You don’t have to be American and work for NASA to dream of going to the moon.

Cristina De Middel is represented by Dillon Gallery. To learn more about exhibitions and publications, visit