December 11th, 2015
In and Out of the Studio
The Met has mounted its first-ever exhibition of West African photographs. But is the museum late to the party?
By Brendan Wattenberg
You didn’t have to be a movie star to be photographed by Mama Casset, but you might have left his studio feeling like one. Casset established a successful studio in Dakar, Senegal in the 1940s, and his portraits were enviably chic. He often posed subjects on a diagonal, energizing the picture with verve and momentum. His close focus removed any worldly references beyond the dark curtains of the backdrop. It’s all the more exciting, then, to discover an image by Casset midway through In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, an exhibition of nearly eighty photographs currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But one Casset is not enough. Relegated to a back room of the Modern and Contemporary wing, this exhibition, which aspires to cover a century of West African photography, illustrates the challenge of glossing the immense range of West African photographic expression in a space smaller than most Chelsea galleries.
In and Out of the Studio begins with a sequence of late-nineteenth century portraits by the father and son George A. G. and Albert George Lutterodt, as well as by Alex Agbaglo Acolatse, who worked in present-day Ghana and Togo. In these photographs, groups of men in regal dress are pictured in stiff, stately postures against painted backdrops. The full-frame image from an original glass negative (on display alongside a modern gelatin-silver print) shows the fringes of the outdoor setting—the roll of the backdrop, the flaking stucco wall, the sandy ground: backstage details that would have been cropped out for a client’s souvenir print. As an introduction to photographic practices in West Africa, Lutterodt and Acolatse’s portraits create the establishing shot, articulating the concept of the studio as a fabricated scene and a laboratory for self-expression.
This exhibition, the first at the Met devoted to African photography, is curated by Yaëlle Biro and Giulia Paoletti and drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection. The majority of prints belong to the Visual Resource Archives in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, a photo study collection originally meant as a repository for supplemental research. In the 1990s, the former Met curator Virginia-Lee Webb began actively seeking photographs from Africa for the collection. Her initiative, which has continued with new acquisitions by successive curators, has created a fascinating and little-known archive of historic photography from the continent. The early-twentieth century postcards in In and Out of the Studio, for example, most on view for the first time, represent a typology for foreign audiences, then and now. Printed titles indicate “young women” or “indigenous type”; the subjects themselves remain nameless.
In contrast to these rigid portraits, groups of more casual pictures—vintage prints and modern reproductions from original negatives—deliver a remarkably intimate view into leisure and family life in Senegal in the 1930s and ’40s. When released from the strictures of the studio format, images of weddings or strolls in a park show a vision of pre-independence West Africa totally unlike the ethnographic propaganda disseminated at the time by colonial powers and by Western photographers. The curators have placed numerous examples in a vitrine, in which pictures are envisioned as objects to be held, traded, collected, or assembled into personal albums. Such buoyant tactility is also evident in several portraits by the renowned Malian portrait photographer Malick Sidibé, who captured the joie-de-vivre of 1960s Bamako, and whose painted glass frames add a flash of color to the exhibition’s otherwise duotone palette. An exquisite self-portrait by Sidibé envisions the artist as an impossibly handsome dandy, his white blazer set off by a burnt-orange frame with green and yellow leaves.
Beneath the generous and incisive captions, however, the Met’s accession numbers tell another story about the history of West African photography and the international marketplace. Mama Casset’s portrait of two Senegalese women, together with one by his brother, Salla Casset, was acquired for the Visual Resources Archive. These images, it would seem, are “evidence.” But in the last third of the exhibition, which includes works by Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Samuel Fosso, and J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, the photographs are “artworks.” The legacy of Keïta, a prominent photographer who operated a studio in Bamako from 1948 to the early 1960s, is a particularly illuminating example. Since the 1990s, when his midcentury portraits were reprinted and marketed abroad, Keïta’s studio portraits have aroused questions of authenticity. Keïta used a large-format camera and wisely preserved his negatives, which allowed for modern reproduction in high definition. The new prints of Keïta’s work, conspicuously appealing to the market and made in European or American print labs, are crisp and brilliant and big. All printmaking is an interpretation of a negative, but the new prints revealed Keïta as a master. The splendid contrasting patterns of textiles, the perfection of the pose, the firm placement of radios or cars, the lustrous skin tones and gleaming accessories—these elements amount to a photographic humanism of the highest order.
The Met holds several modern Keïta prints from the 1990s and the two selected for In and Out of the Studio are incandescent. But they are installed together with three diminutive Keïta portraits that are contact prints made in 1975. In these, the tone is overcast, the blacks lack depth, and the overall sense is comparatively modest. As artworks, they’re deflating. As gifts to the Met from Susan Mullin Vogel, a curator and scholar of African art, they make a rather ironic coda to the long saga of Keïta’s prints and his checkered entanglement with foreign galleries and art dealers. (In 1991, Vogel organized the seminal exhibition Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art at the Center for African Art in New York, in which seven pictures, now identified as portraits by Keïta, were attributed to an “unknown photographer.” Vogel had collected a small selection of Keïta’s negatives on a research trip to Mali in the 1970s and commissioned contact prints by the American photographer Jerry Thompson. Regarding Keïta’s designation as “unknown,” she later insisted that she had misplaced her research notes, even though, at the time of the exhibition in New York, Keïta would certainly have been a known entity in Bamako.) Nevertheless, there’s no going back now—“revised,” marketable versions of Keïta’s portraiture are held in leading institutional and private collections, notably Jean Pigozzi’s Geneva-based Contemporary African Art Collection. And there’s no denying the profound impact Keïta has had on international appreciation of photography from Africa. The most significant statement of this exhibition might be the provocative ambivalence about fetishizing the vintage print: the image itself is an artwork subject to continual revision.
Keïta’s portraits, of course, are central to the recent history of African studio photography. But they should be grouped with African photographers only insofar as Richard Avedon should be grouped with American photographers or August Sander with the Germans. When it comes to the masters, geography is arbitrary. Take Samuel Fosso, who opened a studio in the Central African Republic as a teenager and later became famous for his exuberant, 1970s-era self-portraits. In a way, Fosso’s work doesn’t belong in this exhibition at all. Fosso’s commercial portraiture of subjects other than himself, which might have made a more appropriate inclusion, is rarely exhibited or published, probably because it’s not obviously distinctive from the inventory of other West and Central African studios of the era. Fosso’s particular genius, in his personal work, was to detach his “self” from his self-portraits, to presciently tap into a masquerade of archetypes, a postmodern strategy that would be celebrated in the West ten years later with the advent of the Pictures Generation. Today, Fosso’s career is entirely different from those of his West African contemporaries—he makes self-portrait series with estimable production values, shot in Paris with a team of assistants and printed for collectors, not studio clientele. Firmly established within the cross-cultural dialogues around conceptual photography, his closest peers are Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, whose variations on self-portraiture form an endless inspiration to theoretical studies on gender identity.
In 1984, a fire destroyed Mama Casset’s studio and his archives. When one thinks about the prominence of Seydou Keïta—no doubt due to the preservation of his negatives—the loss is staggering, particularly given that the triumvirate of Keïta, Sidibé, and Fosso has dominated surveys of African photography for the last twenty years. More frequently, broader global surveys of portrait photography are beginning to include African artists on their own terms, and for their formal influence on the medium. The Met’s exhibition is meticulously organized and supplemented by erudite research; for most viewers, it will be an encounter replete with discoveries. Without the careful work by the Met’s conservators, half of the exhibition wouldn’t be available for public viewing, and this itself forms a contribution to the field, especially as one can see firsthand the benefits of preserving cultural patrimony. But the Met is late to the party. A more comprehensive account of African photography is essential, but will viewers ever see one at the Met? With so many stories about African photography still to tell, In and Out of the Studio is like a precious appetizer at an elite restaurant: the presentation is dazzling, but you’re ravenous for more.
Brendan Wattenberg is the managing editor of Aperture magazine.
In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 3, 2016.