Boxing as a sport is a combination of attack and defense techniques with the fists. With roots in Ancient Greece and Rome and more modern forms of the sport originating in England, boxing has been a very widespread phenomenon for a long time.  In the United States, the most skilled and best known boxing athletes are from Black and Latino communities.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a photo exhibition called “Africa with Bare Fists” contrasting the cultures around boxing in different parts of Africa at the European House of Photography in Paris. It was the photos that first caught my eye, but then the content drew me in.

I was struck by two very different boxing traditions from two regions of Africa. Photos from slums in Nairobi, Kenya, where boxing was most likely introduced by white missionaries, showed a school classroom converted into a boxing gym.  This contained, indoor boxing style resembles how the sport is played  in the United States and emphasizes a specific winner. It is also largely a spectator sport. The point of the converted school house we see through these images is to be an alternative to the crime that goes on outside in the slums these athletes all live in. The series on Kenya ends with photos of two Nairobi boxers who ended up competing in the Olympics, escaping from the slums, and moving to the U.S. For these boxers, those who eventually left the slums and for those who were only able to get away while inside the school house as well, their sport was an escape whether temporary or permanent.

The other tradition featured in the exhibition was a more African-derived style of boxing originating in Dakar, Senegal.  It show an entirely different boxing style altogether that goes back over a millennium.  The photos depicted an outdoor boxing tradition in which people are celebrating human strength and human energy rather than competition. No definitive winner is declared in Senegalese boxing matches. The athletes are surrounded by large crowds of people cheering, chanting, and dancing with the boxers. The line between spectator and athlete is blurred.  The experience (even through photos and imagination) was a very positive one that seems more like a spiritual ritual where two bodies work with each other and less like a fight where bodies were clashing and trying to do damage to one another .

It is important to add that although the Senegalese fighters seem to have less violent intent in their boxing, they, and the Kenyans both box bare-fisted  which is much more dangerous than boxing with gloves like American boxers do. The bare-knuckle blows can be fatal. Still, the Senegalese tradition is more free, and the athletes seem uninhibited, uncontrolled.

Both countries, Kenya by the British and Senegal by the French, have been victims of white colonialism.  The photographer of the exhibition, Phillipe Bordas portrays the bravery and strength of these athletes, all of whom he sees as heroes. They (and their ancestors) have survived colonization and/or poverty and sickness in the slums. And they also survive the violent, bare-fist protocol of these African boxing traditions.  I am not a person who is generally interested in boxing, although I have played sports, but this exhibition made me think more deeply about issues of competition, tradition, violence and history.