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Photography has a long history in Africa, where it was introduced by colonial powers shortly after its invention. Originally used there as an ethnographic tool by Europeans, it was transformed by African photographers, who opened photo studios as early as the 1860s, beginning in Senegal. These artists showed Africans through African eyes, documenting life under colonial rule, postwar liberation movements and subsequent societal transformations, and in the contemporary era tackling issues of identity, immigration, and postcolonialism. We’ve selected monographs on eight of the continent’s most celebrated photographers, whose medium is particularly suited to capturing change.
Note that monographs on many important historical photographers such as Oumar Ka (Senegal, 1930–2020) and Ricardo Rangel (Mozambique, 1924–2009), as well as contemporary practitioners like Délio Jasse (b. 1980, Angola), Sabelo Mlangeni (b. 1980, South Africa), Michael Tsegaye (b. 1975, Ethiopia) Andrew Esiebo (b. 1978, Nigeria), Thabiso Sekgala (1981–2014, South Africa), Edson Chagas (b. 1977, Angola), Mame-Diarra Niang (b. 1982, France), Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko (b. 1977, South Africa), and Zohra Bensemra (b. 1968, Algeria) either don’t exist or are long out of print. This list is therefore, not intended as anything more than an introduction to African photography and photographers.
1. Seydou Keïta, Photographs, Bamako, Mali 1948–1963
This book featuring 400 reproductions surveys the work of Seydou Keïta (1921–2001), whose black-and-white portraits captured the mood of a country just emerging from French colonial rule. Keïta didn’t gain international recognition until the 1990s, but by then he’d already achieved success as the proprietor of a photo studio catering to a middle-class clientele, and he later became Mali’s official photographer. He was a carpenter in his youth, but Keïta’s life changed when his uncle gave him a Kodak Brownie camera, which eventually led him to open his photography business. He primarily used a 13-by-18-inch view camera with a broken shutter that required him to remove the lens cap and time his exposure manually. This work-around, and the fact that he shot outdoors in daylight, imbued his images with the formality of 19th-century cartes de visite. Keïta posed his clients in front of backdrops, occasionally adding status symbols—a bicycle, a radio, a car—that reflected the ambitions, hopes, and dreams of a newly empowered nation.
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2. Laura Incardona, Malick Sidibé: La Vie en Rose
Another photographer from Mali who made his mark after the nation gained its independence from France in 1960, Malick Sidibé (1935–2016) focused much of his work on the cultural youthquake that followed. Sidibé’s black-and-white studio portraits of this new generation of Malians showcased the élan and panache with which they appropriated Western fashion. Some of Sidibé’s most iconic photos feature young men in wide-flare trousers and sunglasses, epitomes of 1970s cool. Sidibé also took his camera into clubs, immortalizing Bamako’s effervescent nightlife. This 2010 publication features an interview with the artist, who’d only recently (in 2007) become the first photographer to win the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.
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3. Jean-Marc Patras et al., Samuel Fosso: Autoportrait
Born in Nigeria two years after it left British control in 1960, Samuel Fosso grew up under circumstances much different from those of Keïta’s and Sidibé’s subjects. He endured a period of social unrest that included military coups and, most devastatingly, a civil war between the Nigerian government and Biafra, a breakaway state established by his people, the Igbo—the country’s third-largest ethnic group. At age 10, Fosso fled Nigeria for the Central African Republic, where he first picked up a camera. But his experiences left their mark, instilling his photos with a sense of vulnerability. This book explores his elaborately staged “Autoportraits” series, in which he employed costumes, props, and backdrops to transform himself into various figures both famous (Angela Davis, Martin Luther King) and not (his grandfather robed in Igbo regalia). Speaking to the idea of malleability as a survival tactic, Fosso used these images (both color and black-and-white) to comment on sex, gender, and politics in an increasingly globalized world.
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4. Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
South African–born photographer Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) is a self-styled “visual activist” whose most famous series of photographic portraits, “Faces and Phases,” documented South Africa’s LGBTQ community, a frequent target of violence and discrimination. In the series of impactful, high-contrast black-and-white self-portraits here, they use their own body to allegorically interrogate the politics of race, inclusivity, and self-determination, as well as the history of colonialism. In each, Muholi darkens their skin to near black in post-production—a gesture that not only emphasizes the centrality of race but also has the effect of making their gaze all the more noticeable. Muholi also adorns these images with an odd assortment of found objects—vacuum cleaner hose, jumper cables, clothespins, inflated rubber gloves—as a kind of metaphorical shorthand. Published by Aperture, this large-format book includes images featured in Muholi’s 2021 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. The works are reproduced on glossy paper and accompanied by texts from 17 contributors, among them an interview between the artist and curator Renée Mussai.
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5. David Goldblatt, Structures of Dominion and Democracy
Noted for his photographs of his native South Africa during the apartheid era and after, David Goldblatt (1930–2018) took a nuanced approach to his subject. He preferred to evoke, rather than explicitly chronicle, life under the country’s racial restrictions by focusing on people and places instead of the events that roiled the period. Descended from Lithuanian Jews, Goldblatt combined dispassionate observation and empathy for his subjects, whether they were impoverished township residents or privileged Afrikaners. His images of landscapes and buildings are also redolent with South African history and the racial divisions that grew out of it. This book offers a capsule retrospective of Goldblatt’s career, which witnessed South Africa’s transition from white supremacist regime to multiracial democracy, by collecting examples from his most significant series, including “On the Mines,” “Some Afrikaners,” and “Structures.”
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6. Hassan Hajjaj
Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj (b. 1961) is often called the Andy Warhol of Marrakesh, and it’s fair to say that Hajjaj (who lives in that city and London) is a true generational heir to ’60s Pop Art. His highly chromatic photographs, filled with riotous colors and patterns, straddle the line between art and fashion, appearing in Vogue as well as in galleries and museums. Combining multiple influences—hip-hop, orientalism, and early African photographers like Seydou Keïta—Hajjaj uses the street as his studio, hanging bright fabrics on the sides of buildings as backdrops and shooting his models in front of passersby. His subjects pose and vamp for the camera while wearing custom-made outfits that are often printed with product labels. Hajjaj echoes this effect by bordering his images with frames containing real canned goods. This richly illustrated volume—the artist’s first monograph—accompanied a 2019 retrospective at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.
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7. Leila Alaoui, The Moroccans
This volume of stately portraits by the French-Moroccan photographer and video artist Leila Alaoui (1982–2016) is a kind of tour of the North African kingdom through its inhabitants, whose different traditions and dress mirror the country’s cultural diversity. Inspired in part by Robert Frank’s famed series, The Americans (though without Frank’s gimlet eye for sociopolitical subtext), Alaoui traveled throughout Morocco between 2010 and 2014, finding her subjects across its widely varied territories and getting to know them before capturing their images. She photographed each against a black backdrop, creating a stark contrast between it and the colorful finery they wore for the occasion. Her matter-of-fact approach couldn’t be more different from the baroque artifice of her compatriot Hassan Hajjaj, but it reflects her background as a photojournalist working for various publications and NGOs. In fact, it was in that role, on assignment for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso, that she died during a terrorist attack.
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8. Alex Hirst et al., Rotimi Fani-Kayode & Alex Hirst: Photographs
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955–1989) was born in Nigeria to a prominent Yoruba family that left Africa as political refugees in 1966 and settled in the United Kingdom. Following a stint in the United States, where he attended Georgetown University and earned an MFA at the Pratt Institute in 1983, Fani-Kayode, who was gay, returned to England at the height of the AIDS crisis. He pursued roles as activist and artist, with work that confronted issues of racism, colonialism, and homophobia. Between 1983 and his death from AIDs in 1989, Fani-Kayode, in collaboration with fellow artist Alex Hirst, photographed nude men (sometimes the artist himself) in performative poses evoking mystical rituals both Yoruba and Christian. This richly illustrated volume includes not only large-format color photos but also works in black and white.
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