Published: July 4, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – The public’s view of sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally come from the outside, via images created by tourists, ethnologists and anthropologists. “: A Photographic Essay” provides a wholly different vision of African cultures: a view from the inside. This groundbreaking exhibition, a selection of 70 stunning photographs, is of Africans, by Africans. As authors of their own images, these photographers give us the Africa that they live, rich in its diversity of lands, cultures, and traditions.
In a collage of images, the exhibition at the Museum for African Art explores nearly 100 years of African photography, divided into several distinct periods and themes. “” traces the medium as it was employed by African photographers from the colonial era to the present-day, from Bamako, Mali to Cape Town, South Africa. The works on view document the changing aesthetic of sub-Saharan photography as well as its powerful role in inciting and recording change within the region.
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, 1900-1950S
African photography began with portrait photography. Limited by colonialist governments to the genre of portraiture, African photographers mostly operated out of their homes, before increased economic freedoms led to the establishment of portrait studios in the major cities and capitals of Africa. The original African photographers emphasized portraits and were either employed by European studios scattered around the continent, or discovered photography after doing military service in colonial armies.
By the 1950s however, as urban life and increased opportunities transformed traditional customs and generated significant change in behavior and attitudes in Africa and around the globe, photography was welcomed as the ultimate tool of record in the modern era. Photography in sub-Saharan Africa was used to preserve memories and welcome modernity, while documenting proof of, or desire for, social mobility. The exhibition’s images reveal that poses, backgrounds, costumes and accessories were never present by chance, but act as techniques for expressing African identities in a new aesthetic language.
By mid-century, the new African photography had abandoned the traditional poses established by portraitists, and forged a new image of Africans enjoying themselves – in bars and restaurants, and at parties and events. For the first time, the resultant pictures were of Africans by Africans, and yielded images in which Africans could recognize themselves.
THE WAVE OF INDEPENDENCE, 1960S-1980S
Before independence, African photographers were only commissioned to do portrait work, since architectural, documentary and landscape photography remained in European hands. However, as populations rallied for independence and many European photographers left their studios, a new generation of African reporter-photographers was born.
Armed with new techniques and equipment, such as flashes and small and average formats, these photographers worked to assert an African regional and individual distinctiveness that especially contrasted with established colonial government traditions. African photographers realized that becoming master of one’s own image was an essential part of the emancipation process.
THE OFFICIAL PRESS AGENCIES
With an increasingly independent African continent, official press agencies were established as arms of the government to generate and circulate images of strength and solidarity. Now liberated from colonialism but nonetheless shaped by it, the art of photography became a work in progress and the product of its own people. However, as the leaders of these newly independent states increasingly controlled the ways in which they projected themselves, the agencies were accused of being political pawns, and accordingly lost there much of their objectivity and accountability. Since the 1970s, most of these agencies continue to exist with little or no finance or activity.
“” A Photographic Essay” has been excerpted from related traveling exhibition previously presented in Africa, Europe and South America, and in the United States, at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. Photographers and studios featured in the presentation of “” at the Museum for African Art in New York include: Antoine Freitas, Alex Agbaglo Acolatse, Mama Casset, Daniel Attoumo Amichia, Cornelius Yao Augustt Azaglo, Ambroise Ngaimoko, Bobby Bobson, Samuel Fosso, Abderramane Sakaly, Malick Sidibe, Philippe Koudjina, Depara, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Andrew Tshabangu, Danny-Be, Pierrot Men, Rene-Paul Savignan, and Philippe Gaubert.
The museum for African Art is at 593 Broadway. For information, call 212/966-1313, extension 125.
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