Recovering the Story of Passive / Insignificant Faces in the Colonial Visual Archive
Pictured here is a young boy from the Igorot ethnic group of the Philippines, as he performs the cakewalk, a popular dance of the time, with Austrian-American opera singer Mrs. Wilkins. At a glance, the picture could be interpreted purely from a propagandic perspective, pushing the American ideal of “benevolent assimilation” in showing the positive impact of Western civilization on the savage Filipinos.
During the fair, Mrs. Wilkins had taught several singing lessons for Igorot children, with the children having performances of American songs like “My Old Kentucky” in front of exhibitiongoers. James Gilbert in his book Whose Fair?: Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition argued that the interaction captured could be seen as a glimpse into cross-cultural interaction with ‘native’ peoples through pop culture, molding and shaping the unknown & exotic into something more relatable. 1 James Burkhart Gilbert, Whose Fair? Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 152. Wilkins acted as a representation of the American citizen, interacting with the 'savage' and unknown Igorots in the photograph, also adding a level of familiarity to the spectacle.
The caption of this photograph given by the photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals, Mrs. Wilkins teaching an Igorot boy the cakewalk at the 1904 World's Fair, also perpetuates this by placing the singer as the active participant in the exchange and the point of focus, with the Igorot boy (one of her students) acting as a passive receptacle to receive her knowledge. This is on top of a lack of a name given for the Igorot boy, indicating that what was more important was the act of being taught the cakewalk instead of who it was being taught to. To this day the name of the boy is still unknown, despite appearing in other photographs and this particular photo being on the cover of books and websites that talk about the history of the fair.
Interpretations like these look at the photograph beyond what it initially presented, but in doing so still put the colonial power in the center as the active in this exchange. The American perspective is placed as the focus, when more could be done to enrich the story of the young Igorot.
What was his name? How did the boy feel about this dance? Igorots performed for fairgoers their own cultural dances, such as the celebratory ballangbang. In the dance, men played gongs and set the tempo while the women performed the actual dancing. With the cakewalk also being performed in celebrations, did he find similarities to the movement as he takes the lead in the picture, hence the enjoyment on his face? Did he know about the history of the dance, or if so, would he feel different about performing it?
Enrico Joaquin Lapuz, IIAS, The Netherlands
Photo retrieved from the online collection of the Missouri Historical Society.