Imperial Auto-Mimesis



Volume 9, Issue 01
October 17, 2023

This is a lithographic illustration of acacia senegal (fig. 1) from the second volume of Medicinal Plants published in 1880. Also known as the gum acacia tree, acacia senegal grows primarily in West Africa, and was at the time one of the primary sources of gum arabic, a highly valued commodity in Europe. So heavily in demand was gum arabic throughout Europe in the 18th century that entire imperial wars were waged by the British Empire to usurp French colonial control over its trade.1 Gum arabic has myriad industrial applications, and it also happens to be a key ingredient in lithography. That is to say, this is a print of acacia senegal produced using acacia senegal—one might call it a kind of auto-mimesis: a representation of an object created by using the object itself.

Prior to the development of lithography in 1796,2 illustrative printing was generally limited to engravings and woodcuts, a time-intensive and laborious process. However, lithography allows artists to draw or write directly on the printing stone, making for a simpler technical procedure and a more refined, precise illustration. Rapidly (and more cheaply) preparable and finely detailed, lithography was of particular use to colonial interests, expanding the capacity of European artists and scientists to produce and reproduce images of imperial material culture and environmental knowledge. In other words, lithography was itself an auto-mimetic imperial technology through and through—predicated on colonial practices to supply its production, and propagating a mass culture that fed the demand for imperial expansion.

Indeed, the 19th century saw an explosion in the production of printed images that circulated vistas of empire and the pleasures and anxieties that came with them, due in large part to the economic and representational qualities of lithography. As it was uniquely capable of handling complex ornamentation, lithography was especially favored by Orientalist illustrators and architects. Notably, the development of chromolithography, which introduced multi-color printing to the lithographic process, was credited to a printer reproducing architectural friezes on Egyptian tombs.3 Indeed, the introduction of color greatly accelerated architectural interest in the technology, and several widely influential books on Arabic architecture were produced by European architect-travelers who sought to publicize their grand tours across “The Orient.” One such architect was Owen Jones, who published Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambra in 1836. The richly colored and finely detailed plates from this publication made it a “landmark work,”4 and catapulted Jones to become a leading Orientalist designer in England. He was eventually awarded a commission to design the interior decorations of the Great Exhibition of 1851, as well as a series of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Alhambra Courts for the Crystal Palace complex a year after the Exhibition itself.

The Great Exhibition itself, of course, is well known as perhaps the single most iconic nexus of auto-mimetic modern-colonial practices: its express mission was to authorize the British Empire as a civilizing force for the world, even as colonial crises mounted throughout the 19th century. Lithography played a significant part in this history as well—illustrations of the Exhibition widely circulated in the British press, considerably extending its influence beyond the already unprecedented physical scale of the Crystal Palace. Though it is impossible to quantify the Exhibition’s role in extending that mission, the second half of the 19th century saw considerable expansion of the British Empire’s reach around the world, including the establishment of a protectorate in Egypt. One consequence of this new colonial occupation would be the expansion of a plantation economy for gum trees in the Kordofan region of Sudan, circumventing the French colonial monopoly on acacia senegal in West Africa.

  1. James L.A. Webb, Jr., “The mid‐eighteenth century gum Arabic trade and the British conquest of Saint‐Louis du Senegal, 1758,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 25, no. 1 (1997): 43. ↩︎
  2. Alois Senefelder, The Invention of Lithography, trans. J. W. Muller (New York: The Fuchs & Lang Manufacturing Company, 1911), 3. ↩︎
  3. Kathryn Ferry, “Printing the Alhambra: Owen Jones and Chromolithography,” Architectural History 46 (2003): 178. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 175. ↩︎

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Volume 9, Issue 01
October 17, 2023