TO MARCH 16

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European colonizers documented their African commercial pursuits as a way of demonstrating to the audience back home that they were making productive use of the territories. Because the heavy labor depicted was (naturally) done by Africans, the photographic impulse yielded countless images showing colonized laborers lugging big loads, perhaps of rubber or ivory, or wielding shovels in the service of quarrying or railroad building—today’s Exhibit A in the indictment of colonialism. “In and Out of Focus: Images From Central Africa, 1885-1960,” now showing at the National Museum of African Art, adds to these images a variety of other photographs: pictures of students learning in missionary schools and workers in a textile mill (pictured), portraits of tribal leaders, documentation of cultural practices such as dance and body-piercing, a series of “type” photographs of different “races,” and a priceless image of a pith-helmeted, mustachioed, pipe-smoking colonist being transported in a hammock by two Africans. Some of the images of Africans were intended to demonstrate a basis for white supremacy; ironically, they are now valuable to cultural anthropologists for preserving lost or vastly changed African societies. The exhibition’s captions are regrettably thin—the accompanying catalog is more enlightening—but the curators deserve credit for spotlighting the role of ephemera such as postcards and trading cards in defining a subject’s image in the popular imagination. And the exhibition notes, poignantly, that in time African sitters became increasingly sophisticated at crafting their own images, inspiring enough of a photography market to support itinerant photographers of their own—a small victory in the otherwise shameful tale of colonialism. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, Sunday, March 16, at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-4600. (Louis Jacobson)