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Through the Lens: How Photography Became Africa’s Most Popular Art Form

Joana Choumali, Mme Djeneba Haabré, 2013–14.

©JOANA CHOUMALI AND 50 GOLBORNE GALLERY

Last fall, Jeanne Mercier, a French critic and curator based in Portugal, traveled to London to launch a new book. Her destination was the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, then commencing its fifth edition in the city of its founding, and the subject was Being a Photographer in Africa: The Ten Years of Afrique in Visu. Lavishly illustrated and packed with essays and interviews, the book draws on a significant history accumulated by the website Afrique in Visu, which has become an indispensable resource for followers of African photography. It also chronicles the emergence of a medium that, in the last two decades, has become contemporary Africa’s foremost art form.

Mercier created the site—whose name melds French with Latin and loosely translates as “Africa as we see it”—with her husband, the photographer Baptiste de Ville d’Avray, in Mali in 2006. As its editor-in-chief ever since, she has played a role in lending visibility and coherence to the continent’s flourishing, if often disconnected, photo communities. Mercier’s enduring work made her an ideal partner for Othman Lazraq, part of a new wave of African collectors who have demonstrated an appreciation for photography in its many and various forms. At 29, Lazraq is the energetic young president of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), a nonprofit institution recently established in Morocco and currently home to “Africa Is No Island,” an ambitious survey of contemporary photo work drawing on 40 photographers and collectives from across the continent.

“Photography is a medium I love and care for,” Lazraq said in February at the launch of the show, which was curated by Afrique in Visu with the input of associate curator Madeleine de Colnet. “The role of a museum is to engage and educate people, to somehow bring a small touch of light and hope.” To that end, Lazraq said, Afrique in Visu has aided in his aim to connect Africa’s disparate photographic communities by having “created bridges and completely destroyed boundaries between all these African countries, showing the cultural diversity between them.”

In the new museum set within a private golf estate on the outskirts of Marrakech’s famed medina, “Africa Is No Island” not only reveals African cultural diversity but also highlights intersections and commonalities in expression and subject matter across the continent. One pairing in the show presents South African Lebohang Kganye next to Congolese Sammy Baloji. Both make innovative use of archival photos and collage, with Kganye using her family archives and Baloji drawing on photographs made by white photographers during his country’s colonial subjugation by Belgium. Also included is a strong selection of documentary work, such as that of François-Xavier Gbré and Nicola Lo Calzo, both working on long-term projects respectively focusing on 20th-century architectural ruins and the embodied legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Among the striking features of “Africa Is No Island” are portraits of and by women. Some of the pictures could be classified as documentary, such as a series on facial scarification by the Ivorian Joana Choumali, titled “Hââbré: The Last Generation” (2013–14). Others lean more toward performance, such as a seated self-portrait by the American artist Ayana V. Jackson. Under the title Sarah Forbes (2016), the photo is a contemporary reimagining of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an orphaned Yoruba royal who was gifted by King Ghezo of Dahomey to Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1850.

Lazraq came to photography through portraiture. While still living in New York he became friends with Leila Alaoui, a Paris-born, Marrakech-raised documentary photographer. Lazraq proudly recalled his earliest photographic purchase. “I bought Leila’s first-ever prints of ‘The Moroccans,’ ” he said, in reference to Alaoui’s series documenting Morocco’s cultural traditions and ethnic diversity. One of his acquisitions from this celebrated group, made between 2010 and 2014, depicts a watch seller with an elaborate headdress, photographed in a souk in the Atlas Mountains; another portrays an elderly man from Morocco’s northern coastal region. Alaoui viewed her coolly observed frontal portraits as upending “folkloric” and “orientalist” depictions of Moroccans. In 2015 she told Al Jazeera, “My motivation in this project was to revisit the portrait practice and show Morocco in a way that I consider more natural, though no less objective, through the eyes of a native Moroccan.”

Ayana V. Jackson, Sarah Forbes, from the series “Dear Sarah,” 2016.

©AYANA V. JACKSON AND MARIANE IBRAHIM GALLERY

Art collecting in Africa, as elsewhere, is often marked by entrenched nationalisms. Rich Nigerians collect Nigerians, wealthy South Africans collect South Africans, and flush Moroccans—like Lazraq’s father, Alami Lazraq, a property tycoon—collect Moroccans. The younger Lazraq is not of this tradition. Early on as a collector, he bought work by Peter Beard, a New Yorker famous for, among other things, his photographs of East African wildlife. He owns as well a small image by Japan’s Nobuyoshi Araki, which sits next to Lazraq’s bed at his home in Casablanca, where he also keeps portraits by Malick Sidibé and the emerging South African talent Phumzile Khanyile.

Lazraq’s photography collection is relatively small. Numbering just over 100 works, it in no way compares with the holdings of collectors of Africa-based photography such as the German-American Artur Walther and Frenchman Jean Pigozzi. But on a continent where the collectibility of photography has long been questioned, Lazraq’s holdings signal a beacon of what he called “light and hope” for a medium that has been increasingly vying for space at continental art fairs and fledgling museums devoted to new work, including the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in South Africa.

Located at the other end of the continent, in the port city of Cape Town—some 7,250 miles from Morocco—Zeitz MOCAA focuses on 21st-century African art, with a concession to the continent’s vast diaspora. Unsurprisingly, its holdings—the full extent of which remains a jealously guarded secret—show a strong tilt toward lens-based work, notably photography. Key examples include Angolan Edson Chagas’s photographic installation Luanda, Encyclopedic City (2013), which won Angola the Golden Lion for best national pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. But Chagas’s project, which pictures detritus viewed against anonymous urban infrastructure, is an outlier in a museum whose primary focus is on visualizing black subjects.

Zeitz MOCAA has six departments, including one devoted solely to photography. The photo section is named after Roger Ballen, an American-born photographer who has resided in Johannesburg for nearly four decades, and who made a sizable donation of work as well as funds to the institution. The museum’s director and chief curator Azu Nwagbogu—who moved into his role in May after the resignation of founding director Mark Coetzee—maintains close connections to photography as well.

In 2010 Nwagbogu founded the LagosPhoto Festival in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. An annual event with a lineup of global talent, LagosPhoto forms part of a growing number of specialist festivals that now include Addis Foto Fest, started in Ethiopia in 2010 by the photographer Aida Muluneh, and Rencontres Picha, a biennial founded in 2008 by Sammy Baloji in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi. LagosPhoto has not reached the level of influence and recognition achieved by Bamako Encounters, a benchmark photo festival held in the Malian capital since 1994, but competition was not Nwagbogu’s motive when he founded it.

“My primary focus at the time was to challenge conceptions, in the West and on the continent, of ourselves,” Nwagbogu said. Motivated by the “urgency and immediacy” of the medium, he saw LagosPhoto as an opportunity to “build a community on the continent.”

Industry peers acknowledge that Nwagbogu’s entrepreneurial zeal is paying off. “It is a really important initiative that has made photography far more accessible,” said Bisi Silva, a Lagos-based curator and art historian. “They have programs targeting young photographers, and because of its international focus, LagosPhoto also brings diverse photographic practices to the city.”

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Abiku (Born to Die), 1988.

©ROTIMI FANI-KAYODE /COURTESY HALES GALLERY, NEW YORK AND AUTOGRAPH ABP, LONDON

Within the wide range of subjects surveyed in African photography is a newly prominent variety of performance-based portraits now ubiquitous in galleries, at fairs, and on museum walls. This kind of photography often combines self-portraiture with gestural cues and tends to favor lavish costumes and assertive—sometimes even unambiguous—politics in a manner that raises questions. What might such work say about the continent today? And, equally important, what does its apparent collectibility say about Africa’s burgeoning art scene?

“I have always found the politics of representation complicated,” said Nandipha Mntambo, a Swaziland-born sculptor best known for her cowhide installations but whose output also encompasses photography. In 2008, working with photo retoucher Tony Meintjes, Mntambo created Europa, a startling self-portrait in which the artist made herself up to resemble a minotaur. A print of this work fetched £6,000 ($8,400) at Sotheby’s March sale of contemporary African art in London. To put that in perspective, Seydou Keïta, Mali’s venerated mid-20th-century portraitist, typically achieves around the same price at auction.

“How we portray or represent ourselves to the world is quite a complex thing that shifts all the time,” Mntambo said. “And the use of other peoples’ bodies in our work is also complicated, because I don’t know if you can ever have a clear and true conversation with somebody else about how you want them to be seen within work that you’re creating. The body is a complex political space.”

Nwagbogu expanded on Mntambo’s line of reasoning. “If you look at international museum culture, there is an absence of the black figure, an absence of the African figure.” Citing a current trend in the work of numerous women artists, including the South Africans Zanele Muholi and Tony Gum, Nwagbogu said such subject matter “is always about identity. ‘Hey, I’m here! Look at me.’ ”

Of course, women are not alone in their interest in self-portraiture. At the 2013 edition of LagosPhoto, Samuel Fosso, a pioneering Cameroonian-born Nigerian self-portraitist, used the festival to premiere his series “The Emperor of Africa” (2013), a set of staged scenes in which he presents himself as the Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Fosso started to produce his theatrical self-portraits in his commercial studio in the 1970s and achieved a measure of prominence for this body of work when he exhibited it at the inaugural Rencontres de Bamako in 1994.

Namsa Leuba, Statuette Kafigeledio Prince – Guinea, 2011.

©NAMSA LEUBA AND ART TWENTY ONE GALLERY

The early ’90s marked a period of emergence for African photography. Fosso, Keïta, and Sidibé all achieved visibility—and with it, patronage, a not entirely uncomplicated gift. Years later, a legal fracas over a predicament originating during that time proved a cautionary tale. In 1992 Pigozzi and his agent André Magnin bought 921 negatives from Keïta and went on to produce new large-scale prints that they sold to dealers. Displeased with the arrangement, Keïta eventually broke with Pigozzi and Magnin; the photographer’s death in 2001, however, left his estate in limbo, prompting a suit against Pigozzi and Magnin by Jean-Marc Patras, a French dealer who helped Keïta establish a family-run foundation and who now represents Fosso, for the return of the allegedly lost negatives.

The inconclusive suit was extensively documented; in a 2006 New York Times article, Michael Rips pointed out that the nub of the case was not about who owned the negatives—by all accounts, Pigozzi—but about “who owns Keïta.” (“I own Seydou Keïta,” Rips quoted Pigozzi as having shouted at dealer Sean Kelly.)

The fallout highlights asymmetries that continue to characterize the relationship between the Western art market and African artists. Who is consuming whom, and for what purpose? These are not rhetorical questions, and they inform the context of a barbed essay by writer and curator Simon Njami in the Afrique in Visu anthology Being a Photographer in Africa. In that essay, “From Ethnography to Photography,” Njami, who reprised his 2016 role as artistic director of this year’s Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, recalls the “photographic gold rush” prompted after the first international sightings of Keïta and Sidibé in the ’90s. “The first discoveries, whatever their real qualities,” Njami writes, “generated a stream of foolishness and a crowd of specialists whose only claim to fame was to have set foot in Africa. It was around this time that it was possible to hear such imbecilic and definitive statements as, ‘Africa is nothing but studio portraits.’ ”

If the ’90s was a “decade of discovery,” Njami writes, “the real revolution occurred in the 2000s with the creation of platforms dedicated to Africa within the continent itself.” Alongside those platforms previously mentioned he lists Club Gallery in Bamako and Zimbabwean Calvin Dondo’s photography festival in Harare.

Best known for his mid-2000s traveling exhibition “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent,” Njami was early in his career an editor at Revue Noire, a pioneering Parisian art journal founded in 1991 that championed the photography of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian-born London resident whose early 1980s experiments in self-portraiture evolved into magisterial explorations of eroticism and fantasy.

Federica Angelucci, a director at Stevenson, a South African gallery representing Chagas, Mntambo, Muholi, Pieter Hugo, and Guy Tillim, thinks that a lot of what passes for contemporary portraiture is deeply indebted to Fani-Kayode. Angelucci does, however, concede that digital networks and such media as Instagram have also influenced artistic practice, shaping the performativity that is so pervasive in photography today. “If people ask me about all this interest in African art, I say it’s because of photography,” said Nwagbogu. “Artists can self-publish on social-media platforms. It is a very democratic tool.”

Zanele Muholi, who has more than 70,000 Instagram followers, is especially adept at using online platforms to showcase her long-standing work portraying black LGBTQI communities. Similarly, Tony Gum, who won the 2017 Miami Beach Pulse Prize for self-portraits exploring her Xhosa heritage, achieved her prominence first as a blogger and brand ambassador.

Self-promotion, which digital networks enable, does not constitute discourse. In his essay for Mercier’s book, perhaps an old-fashioned idea in this age of JPEGs and PDFs, Njami makes a strong case for the role of print publishing. Books and catalogues, he writes, “strengthen the close relationship a viewer can have with a photographer.” Njami, whose itinerant photography master class turned ten years old this year, is currently editing a new book on contemporary photography due to be launched at the 2018 Joburg Art Fair in September.

Sammy Baloji, Back to Authenticity, a view of the pagoda of President Mobutu, N’sele, Kinshasa, 2013.

©SAMMY BALOJI

Njami’s emphasis on the role of books is shared by Silva. While appreciative of the “huge uptake” in photography across the continent—and, with it, an evolution in focus from street, studio, and documentary toward more fine art and conceptual concerns—Silva admitted to feeling “discomfort” around the stylized photo portraiture now so dominant. “What’s missing is discourse—there needs to be contextualization, more writing,” said Silva, who edited a 2015 monograph on J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, the Nigerian photographer best known for his long-term project documenting hairstyles and adornments. “When you are creating in a vacuum, the work loses its power—there is no debate. Photography now mainly exists in the realm of the market. There are lots of nice glossy catalogues, but I am not seeing rigorous work being done around African photography.”

For better or worse, the market Silva speaks of lies largely beyond the borders of Africa. This is true even in the continent’s most robust art market, in South Africa. “In 2007, when I joined the gallery, we had a very limited collector base for photography locally,” said Angelucci, the Stevenson gallery director. “There was only one photography collector I knew of in the country. This has now changed; still, I have very few clients here.” Of those she has met, “most of our local clients collect broadly and include photography in their scope, but there is not a specific interest in the medium. It is not associated with status, even though the prices are not what would appeal to an entry-level collector.”

The situation in Marrakech, which is rapidly emerging as a key destination and market for art in North Africa, is little different from that of South Africa. “There are some collectors, but many here buy mainly from galleries in Paris,” Mercier said when she was in town for her show’s opening. In this respect, Lazraq, MACAAL’s president, follows custom and is more inclined to buy work in France than in Morocco. François-Xavier Gbré, who bemusedly listened in on my conversation with Mercier at the museum, smiled when I turned to him. “I sell more outside Africa,” he said. “I’m in Tate Modern, the Walther Collection, Smithsonian, Pompidou Centre.” It’s a common refrain among many of Africa’s most successful contemporary photographers.

In 2014 worldwide auction sales of African art totaled $31 million, according to the inaugural 2015 African Art Market Report, though the figure slumped to $23 million in 2016, the most recent year of reported sales. Even accounting for sales generated by private dealers, which, based on global trends, only slightly surpass auction sales, the total value of African art sold in 2014 amounted to less than the price paid for Andy Warhol’s 1963 Triple Elvis, which sold for $81.9 million at Christie’s that same year. And photography contributed only a fraction to those sales totals.

Where some might intuit hopelessness, Lazraq, who is preternaturally optimistic, thinks otherwise. After apprising me of details about La Chambre Claire, the bi-annual photo award he established in 2013, Lazraq said, “Photography is a young medium and, as I like to say, the art of my generation. I want to give young photographers a voice, to show them that photography can be a job.”

Increasingly, that aspiration is becoming a reality across the continent.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 76 under the title “Through the Lens.”

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