July 20th, 2016
From Three African Photographers, A Diverse Vision of Urban Life
An exhibition in Philadelphia explores African cities through street photography and portraiture.
By Ian Bourland
This summer The Philadelphia Museum of Art has dedicated its Perelman building to a multifaceted program, broadly conceived as Creative Africa. While clearly intended to expose a wide audience to artists from the continent, the installations and related programming—including a textile display of Vlisco brand “batik” wax-resist cloth and a retrospective of Berlin-based Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré—perpetuate the notion of a monolithic Africa as an exotic, if resourceful, wonderland. Challenging such misconceptions has been at the heart of recent curatorial work by, for instance, Okwui Enwezor, director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, or in Philadelphia two years ago with Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s Magic Ladders at the Barnes Foundation. Magic Ladders also used Vlisco-type fabric, but as a site of ambivalence precisely to challenge stereotypes that European or American audiences might bring with them into the gallery.
Within Creative Africa, curator Peter Barberie has brought together a trio of veteran African-born photographers under the aegis of Three Photographers/Six Cities, which attempts to visualize a wide spectrum of quotidian life on the continent, but does so through small moments rather than wide angles. The exhibition endeavors to revise a tendency in many photographic representations of Africa—often taken by outsiders—that privilege exotic landscapes or terrifying conflicts, perpetuating what Enwezor, in his seminal exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography (2006), calls “Afro-pessimism.” Indeed, Enwezor’s exhibition from a decade ago (as well as Simon Njami’s Africa Remix and Laurie Ann Farrell’s Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora from the same period) set the tone for broadly conceived but theoretically nuanced exhibitions on African art. In his exhibition, Barberie pursues a more discrete, but nonetheless evocative, course: the three photographers—Ananias Léki Dago, Seydou Camara, and Akinbode Akinbiyi—consider six urban contexts by blending conventional street photography with quiet moments of portraiture.
Much of the geographic range here is provided by Léki Dago, whose work is drawn from several series exploring Nairobi, Bamako, and Soweto—three distinct urban spaces, each of which the photographer, Ivorian by birth and based in Abidjan and Paris, explored as a relative outsider. He describes his own process as less rooted in the decisive moment of street photography, and more about locating a visual metaphor that recurs in the landscape. Such tropes include the cruciform cart handles of local workers in Mali, the undulating waves of corrugated tin in Kenya, or shebeens, the informal bars common to black communities in South Africa. From the series Shebeen Blues (2010) on, his more recent work ventures into portraiture with hagiographic undertones. Taken together, Léki Dago’s 35mm projects tarry in soft focus and lyrical abstraction, seeking hidden or microcosmic zones in the everyday. In this sense, his own projects contrast with now-familiar modes of earlier African portraiture and photojournalism, such as that of Peter Magubane in South Africa, Seydou Keïta in Mali, or Paul Kodjo in Ivory Coast, whose archive Léki Dago is currently working to conserve.
By contrast, Camara’s extended meditation on Tombouctou, a region of Mali famous for the Djingareyber Mosque, draws the viewer into a lush visual terrain that bears traces of the past. These smaller-scale works document sacred texts and the hands that bear them, and offer tight landscapes of a radiant and dusty city built around six-hundred-year-old mud and timber mosques. (Camara lives and works in Mali.) Tombouctou has long been a center of learning and cosmopolitanism in trans-Saharan Islam, a legacy now threatened by the emergence of radical factions throughout northern Africa. The only color pictures in the show, Camara’s delicate inkjets convey the region’s vast desert skies, arid streets, and brittle pages with a crisp clarity.
The most arresting work in Three Photographers/Six Cities, however, is by the veteran Akinbiyi, whose square-format grid from his ongoing series All Roads immerses the viewer in the clamor of Lagos with bracing immediacy. A megacity of some twenty million, set across islands and waterways, one could dedicate a career to the place and scarcely scratch the surface. Although Akinbiyi, who was born in Nigeria and currently lives in Berlin, also takes on Cairo, All Roads conveys a sense of location and dynamism with concision, velocity, even pathos. His vision is one of a new urbanism that typifies much of Africa and the global hubs once relegated to the periphery.
This sensibility, in fact, is the central contribution of Three Photographers/Six Cities, which draws landscapes to the fore to represent the lived experience of specific African urban communities. Such cities are kinetic hubs of migration and uneven development, improvisation and adaption—from the seemingly timeless but now-threatened built environment of Tombouctou to the bustle of Lagos’s Yaba market. These narratives are framed by photographers living, working, traveling, and exhibiting their photography on the continent, which provide a diverse contribution of imagery to the wider concept, however vague, of Creative Africa. Still, a soundtrack on loop in the gallery pulls focus from the photographs. The music is a mixture of voices (from sinuous kora and funky Afrobeat, King Sunny Ade to Miriam Makeba) and a playlist of postcolonial classics. The experience is at once jarring—imagine seeing pictures of Mexico City set to “Born in the USA”—and also reinforces the tired misconception that visual art from Africa cannot be dissociated from the sonic.
Ultimately, Three Photographers/Six Cities is a crucial proposition in its willingness to offer a more sustained and open-ended meditation on one dimension of contemporary landscapes, rather than issue generalizations, theoretical or otherwise. It also highlights the work of West African photographers who are far less known in America than their South African counterparts, such as Zanele Muholi or Pieter Hugo, who tend to have more gallery-level visibility here. Taken together, their projects confound common themes within recent displays of photography from Africa, from romanticism to pessimism. This latter point is especially crucial in the larger context of Creative Africa, which, for its benign intent, rehearses some by-now threadbare approaches to displaying a social landscape in constant flux.
Ian Bourland is an assistant professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Three Photographers/Six Cities is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 25, 2016.