In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present

May 24-September 29, 1996

Ricardo Rangel (Mozambique),
Untitled, from Our Nightly Bread Series,
1960-70, Gelatin-silver print, 30 x 24 cm, Courtesy of the Artist

Photography has come to play an important role in the way we prove to one another our status, our place in history-our very existence. Perhaps the simplest form of virtual reality, it also enables us to experience faraway places and people without ever leaving home. Almost from photography's inception, its nature has been the subject of debate, exposing its potential distortion and misrepresentation of the "real." Nonetheless, photography maintains its power to seduce us into be lieving that it presents truths. Western representations of Africa and Africans, whether in the realms of science or popular culture, are a case in point. A willingness to believe in the veracity of such photographs, which present an inherently distorted view, has contributed to ongoing misunderstanding.

In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present exhibits the work of 30 ethnically and racially diverse African photographers active on the continent and abroad who employ, critique, and exploit notions of photographic truth concerning African repres entation. This landmark exhibition, the first of its kind in the U.S., demonstrates a wide range of approaches to the medium: the experiences and aesthetic concerns of the selected artists are conveyed through forms as varied as portraiture, photojournal ism, and installations that include photographs. Some works are documentary, others experimental, while many are hybrids.

The exhibition begins with portraits from the 1940s and 1950s, during the dismantling of European colonial rule on the continent. In literary and political circles, Francophone intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Séd ar Senghor developed the framework for negritude, a concept of African identity that privileged romantic, essentialist notions of race and ancestry. Simultaneously, Kwame Nkrumah, in Ghana, forged his concept of a unified pan-African identity based more u pon political and economic contingencies than on ideas of ethnicity and tradition.

The intimate studio portraits of Salla Casset, Me•ssa Gaye, and Seydou Keita emerged in the transformative atmosphere shaped by debates concerning independence and identity. By the late 1940s, each of these photographers had established studios that cater ed to a clientele of varied economic means. For many of the subjects, the portraits provided a realm in which to project their fantasies. Keita often provided costumes and props to help construct with his clients their desired look: European outfits and a ccessories such as fountain pens, radios, and wristwatches frequently appear in his photographs. These photographs lack the ethnographic markers often accompanying images of Africans in Western anthropological texts, photojournalistic periodicals, televis ion documentaries, or travel brochures. Although multipatterned clothing and backdrops or the framing of the subjects may draw us to the photographs, the sitters' self-composure and assertiveness hold us there. During this same period, Mohammed Dib create d a serene and poetic body of work. His images contemplate light, space, and architecture, and the way these elements are altered by the presence of human forms, whom we encounter from the back, side, or distance.

The photojournalistic images that appeared in Drum magazine in the 1950s show us a view of Africa that also diverges from myopic representations. Drum was founded in 1951 in Cape Town as The African Drum by an Afrikaner, Robert Crisp, but because the publ ic viewed the magazine as patronizing, it failed. Later that year, James Bailey, the son of a wealthy mine owner, retitled and restructured the magazine, employing images and articles to confront the harsh conditions suffered by blacks under apartheid. Th e staff writers and photographers, primarily Africans, Coloreds, and Indians, risked their lives and freedom to record the inhuman treatment of prisoners and the hazardous and humiliating circumstances encountered by mine workers and other victims of the racially biased society. By 1958, many of the magazine's photographs were syndicated and published internationally, and separate Nigerian, Ghanaian, East African, and Central African editions of the magazine appeared.

Drum photographers also recorded a decade of tremendous literary, musical, and artistic production. Sophiatown-a racially mixed, bohemian sub-city built on a dump in Johannesburg-emerged as the center of this cultural explosion. Through Drum images we wit ness masquerade balls, political protests and rallies, jazz musicians, domestic life, and sporting events. They tell of an era of converging tastes, collapsing class distinctions, and eccentric sensibilities not unlike those seen in the U.S. during the Ha rlem Renaissance of the late 1910s to the early 1930s or in the Beat culture of the 1950s.

Like the Drum photographers, Ricardo Rangel employs the techniques of photojournalism. His series Our Nightly Bread (1960Đ70) records the nightlife of Maputo, Mozambique's capital, during the country's struggle for independence. With these images, Rangel transports us onto the streets and into the crowded clubs, where, like voyeurs, we experience the charged environment, with prostitutes at work and European sailors at play. Capturing fragments in a rush of activity, Rangel creates images that are immedia te and unstaged.

Samuel Fosso's self-portraits of the 1970s mirror the politics of the times: they resonate with issues of the construction, dissolution, and questioning of identity. Fosso photographed himself in stagelike settings wearing various disguises, all the while maintaining a blank expression. The resulting images conflate the fiction of masquerade and photography's claim to present the truth.

Nabil Boutros's, David Goldblatt's, and Santu Mofokeng's photographs are rooted in the documentary tradition. Boutros records the lives of people in Egypt. According to him, "The photographic act is a kind of passport leading one toward others and not a p ermit to steal their images." His portraits are not just photographs of individuals, they are part of his attempt toward a collective vision of what he refers to as "inner" Egypt. Goldblatt has documented Afrikaners, showing us the many sides of the white South African population of Dutch descent. Mofokeng says he records "ordinary black South Africans going about the day-to-day business of living."

In many contemporary works, the body is prominently featured as a means to explore a variety of issues. Zarina Bhimji's light-box images of body parts floating in formaldehyde, photographed in hospital laboratories, call into question the legacy of 19th-c entury pseudoscientific probings that, to this day, fuel myths concerning Africa and its representation. Touhami Ennadre photographs bodies in situations of tension or duress. He confronts the body head on and pushed to the limit. By "breaking it down and rearranging it," not simply representing it, Ennadre attempts to "express what lies beyond what is seen."

Iké Udé's installations juxtapose photographs of caricatured images of Africa culled from popular culture with collages of family portraits and snapshots. When comparing these images, we are reminded that our knowledge of Africa has come via gross misrepresentations, and may have more to do with Western fantasies and fears than with actual African lives. Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé's light boxes simultaneously address ideas of representation or personal history while exploring nontraditional means for creating and disseminating images.

While most of the works in the exhibition are concerned to varying degrees with the human body, the photographs of Gordon Bleach, Jellel Gasteli, and Lamia Naji depict landscapes and architecture. Bleach used half-hour exposures to record himself construc ting, deconstructing, and outlining temporary structures made from materials found on a building site. In these theory-laden sci-fi-like landscapes, the presence of the artist is so blurred that he becomes invisible. In Gasteli's photographs, white architectural structures and ambient light lead to abstractions of form. When people appear in Naji's works, they are merely compos itional elements. Her dark landscape fragments are, she says, "studies of light in the depths of darkness and reflect a profound desire for spirituality."

In/sight points to the diversity of visions among African photographers who have carved out individual cultural and creative spaces. While raising critical issues about African representation, the works in this exhibition compel us to experience them on v isual terms. It is hoped that this exhibition will introduce its audience to the richness of contemporary African artistic output, while revealing the misrepresentations found in Western views of Africa.

-Regina Woods, Project Curatorial Assistant