The 1990s were a turning point for contemporary African photography, owing to several key projects, including the founding, in 1995, of the Bamako Encounters, a biennial photography festival in the capital of Mali, and the 1996 exhibition “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor. In a 2016 conversation with the prodigious German photography collector Artur Walther, published on the Aperture magazine website, Enwezor commented that the decade was noteworthy because African photography began to be seen, and written about, as an autonomous practice. Previously, he argued, the work of African photographers was considered interesting, at best, for the information it provided about life on the continent, and not regarded as an art form in its own right. “What I believe,” said Enwezor, “is that in the 1990s, a generation of curators, writers, and thinkers who were Africans—and I want to underscore this—made a bid to shift completely away from this ethnographic lens, and its spotlight. We found that the way that this lens thought of Africa was completely at odds with the content.”
What changed in the 1990s was an awareness that global photographic history had failed to acknowledge the artistic work of older generations of African photographers, many of whom had come of age during the twilight of colonialism. In the three decades since, writers and curators have worked to correct these gaps, producing survey exhibitions and books that gathered photographers from across the continent whose work evinced a creative freedom that made them instantly recognizable as artists. These exhibitions were staged, for the most part, in Western museums and galleries, and the books published in North America and Europe. For most of its history, Bamako Encounters, though organized in an African country, has been funded primarily by the Institut français, a cultural organization run by the French government with offices in several of its former colonies. Regardless, what emerged was a photographic discourse defined by the irreducible complexity of the African continent, and the determination of its artists to master the medium.
Today, there are many African photographers with important careers, including Santu Mofokeng, Aida Muluneh, Samuel Fosso, and Zanele Muholi, who have exhibited in prestigious institutions around the world. Yet why are they still so often grouped together under a continental banner, rather than considered alongside artists from elsewhere with whom they may have more in common artistically? Three notable volumes of African photography were published in 2020—The Journey: New Positions in African Photography, edited by Simon Njami and Sean O’Toole; Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent by Ekow Eshun; and the exhibition catalogue African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other, edited by Mark Sealy, Steven Evans, and Max Fields—and none took up the question directly. “Are there discourses particular to photography from Africa?” Njami and O’Toole ask in their introduction. For Sealy, curator of “African Cosmologies,” part of the 2020 FotoFest Biennial in Houston, the exhibition was “aligned in spirit and soul with the creative body and mind of Africa, wherever it may be located and in whatever form it may take.” Eshun’s logic in Africa State of Mind is similar: the book, he writes in his introduction, is “an exploration of how contemporary photographers of African origin are interrogating ideas of ‘Africanness’ through highly subjective renderings of place, belonging, memory and identity that reveal Africa to be a psychological space—a state of mind—as much as a physical territory.”
Both Eshun and Sealy, in particular, emphasize subjectivity as a dominant concern of African photographers, who, Eshun argues, excavate a personal record from multiple sources, whether filial, political, or sociological. Eric Gyamfi, featured in all three books, is best known for “Just Like Us” (2016), a series of photographs documenting the quotidian life of a queer community in Ghana. The photographs possess an intimacy akin to that of the more overtly personal “A Certain Bed” (2017–), an ongoing record of the domestic spaces belonging to friends and lovers that he has moved through since becoming estranged from his family. Musa N. Nxumalo’s series “16 Shots” (2017), reproduced in The Journey and Africa State of Mind, encompasses photographs taken during both demonstrations and club parties in South Africa, blurring the line between dissent and hedonism. Lebohang Kganye, who also appears in the latter two books, melds the fictive and the archival, creating photomontages that juxtapose photographs of her mother and her own reenactments of them. For these artists, photography is more than the sum of its traditions and subgenres, whether documentary, fine art, portraiture, or landscape; it is a form capable of depicting subjective experience and lived reality.
Between 2008 and 2018, the curator and writer Simon Njami, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, ran the Photographers’ Masterclass, a “mobile academy” where photographers from the African continent, alongside international curators, engaged with the theory and praxis of photography. Each annual iteration of the Masterclass took place in a different city—Maputo, Bamako, Addis Ababa, Lubumbashi, Lagos, Johannesburg, Khartoum, Nairobi—with an average of ten participants, each new group selected from a pool of applicants continent-wide. “It is a truism of photography globally that autodidacts are as numerous as formally trained photographers,” write Njami and O’Toole in their introduction to The Journey. “But what does it mean to be a self-taught photographer on a continent with so few photography schools?” Featuring seventeen alumni of the Masterclass, the book is, in one sense, an answer to that question. Education, the editors argue, is a necessary tool for the development of photography on the continent. Unfortunately, the book offers few specifics about the kind of instruction the participating photographers received. Instead, their works are presented as diverse examples of what can be achieved through professional mentorship, representing, as the editors write, an assemblage of talent “fully formed and particular.” The portfolios address concerns as traumatic as the death of a father (Jansen van Staden) and a near-death experience (Adeola Olagunju), and as sociologically rich as the lives of urban dwellers (Michael Tsegaye, Ala Kheir), and as politically fraught as the failures of South Africa’s transition from apartheid (Thabiso Sekgala). Yet, if the Masterclass showed that African photographers were interested in contemporary discourse around the medium—and could show real artistic growth when exposed to an “intense format of exposition and critique”—the program’s unexplained termination brings Njami and O’Toole’s argument full circle. If the Masterclass proved that African photographers are in need of opportunities for specialized training, how will the next generation fare?
Regardless, the artists continue their autodidactic work. The photographs in Africa State of Mind were taken, for the most part, during the last decade. Eshun’s book is organized into four thematic sections that loosely group the aesthetic and political concerns of the fifty featured photographers: “Hybrid Cities,” “Zones of Freedom,” “Myth and Memory,” and “Inner Landscapes.” The stylistic range of the work is impressive, even if the photographers were born in only eighteen of Africa’s fifty-four countries, with sixteen from South Africa alone. As Eshun admits, the book hinges on what the Senegalese philosopher Felwine Sarr describes, in his 2016 book, Afrotopia, as the “continuity between the real and the possible.” That is, the images—whether Sabelo Mlangeni’s portraits of queer people in South Africa’s rural townships, Guillaume Bonn’s photographs of derelict buildings along the East African coast, or the performance-based photographs Sethembile Msezane stages in front of statues in Cape Town—are photographers’ attempts to work through the Africa they inherited in order to arrive at an Africa of the imagination. The historical, and historicized, Africa was a place upon which European prejudices about Blackness were projected, resulting in decades of violent colonialism. Figures like Seydou Keïta (1921–2001) and Malick Sidibé (1935–2016), canonical now, but who reached a broad audience only in the 1990s, produced bodies of work that showed Africans as irreducible to any stereotype. The book’s photographs take up “a common cause,” Eshun writes, “an insistence that Africa be seen in all its paradox and promise and everyday wonder.”
Africa State of Mind points to the yet uncompleted adventure of self-representation. A similar sentiment is reflected in African Cosmologies, when Sealy describes the effect of contemporary African photographers on “photography’s deadly colonialities.” Works like Sammy Baloji’s “Mémoire” (2006), a series of photomontages juxtaposing archival images of Africans at work during colonial times with photos of worksites in present-day Lubumbashi, illustrate how photography is “dragged into processes of remaking, delinking, and rethinking the work that images do in history and culture.”
As African photography continues to be framed as a dialectic—an opportunity to show what Africa is or isn’t, what it should not have been or could become—is there room to consider what kinds of contributions individual artists are making to the medium globally? When asked by Walther whether it was necessary to “keep the continental context, or group artists as Africans,” Enwezor responded in the affirmative: “The field of African arts, literature, ideas, is a disciplinary field, and it has to be respected as such,” he said. “Until we learn that this is a discipline, it will never be possible to recuperate African artists or African thinking into a ‘global’ field.” As more and more surveys are published, establishing the boundaries of the field, is it possible that the work of recuperation is nearly done? And if that is the case, will more complex, sub-disciplinary ways to present photography produced on the continent emerge?
One response was given last year by Clémentine Deliss and Azu Nwagbogu, the curators of LagosPhoto, an annual photography festival founded by Nwagbogu in 2010, in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s largest city. Responding in part to the debates around the restitution of African cultural artifacts, the curators conceived what they called a “Home Museum,” in which participants could send up to twelve photographs depicting a “collection of objects of virtue.” It did not matter whether the participants were amateur or professional photographers, or what kind of objects they decided to share. The photographs, sent from regions as diverse as South America, the Middle East, Russia, and China, as well as across Africa, served as a blueprint for building an online museum with the “cultural artefacts of our day,” as Deliss and Nwagbogu wrote in their curatorial statement. The featured photographs included snapshots of record collections, bedrooms, pottery, and assortments of memorabilia. Hosted on an impressive interactive website, “Home Museum” might be seen as a model for the future of African photography: an institution based on the continent that serves as a nexus for a global conversation about the medium’s uses and meanings.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 36–44.