A literal reading of the two Latin words from which it is derived—fictilis, “made of clay,” and fictor, “molder, or sculptor,”—would suggest that fiction is something made by hand. Expanded into the process of making a photograph, fiction might mean the hand holding the camera, the hand applying chemicals in the darkroom, the hand selecting, superimposing, cropping, animating, and colorizing. In this sense, the documentary photographs and videos in “Recent Histories: New Photography from Africa,” a group exhibition at the Walther Collection’s New York Project space this past fall, could be considered—at least in part—fictional objects. The five artists on view—Simon Gush, Délio Jasse, Lebohang Kganye, Dawit L. Petros, and Zina Saro-Wiwa—variously use intertitles, staging stop-motion animation, and painterly and digital effects, among other means, to convey truths not easily communicated through more straightforward methods.
The work of these artists undermines any notion of Africa as a monolithic entity, or of its history as an unbroken line. Instead, each artist is attentive to, and working through, a personal vernacular. In “Histories in the Making,” his essay for the show, curator Joshua Chuang writes of the kind of artwork that might attend to the varied and complex histories of African countries. “International in their perspectives, profile, and scope, these versatile artists give texture, nuance, and a sense of expansiveness to the notion of what it means to be an artist working in, or with strong ties to, Africa.”
And yet, without an “Africanist” prompt—one that signals a collective narrative of people colonized, dispossessed, uncertain of the future—how might these individual bodies of work be perceived? What of the disparate pleasures elicited by these images—the fractured landscapes in Petros’s photographs, the wondrous blue of Jasse’s cyanotypes, the dark comedy of Kganye’s family history, the candid relish with which men and women eat their meals in Saro-Wiwa’s videos, or the luster of Simon Gush’s photographic prints on aluminum? And in what other ways do these artists’ narratives diverge?
In three large-format color images by Eritrean-born photographer Petros, mirrors held aloft by his subjects obscure their faces while reflecting a fragment of a sandy beach or a town street. Encountered on the artist’s travels across Africa, these places may historically be sites of horror, despondency, and death. But they are also sites of exchange. Ships might have been moored where the men stand. Petros’s minimalist photographs hold up the possibility that if we stare long enough, what returns is not only a history of trauma and dispossession, but the longer and broader history of human exchange. We consider each other as potential equals.
Jasse, drawn to printmaking, returned to his birthplace of Luanda, Angola, after years of being away, and took photographs of a city newly transformed by oil wealth. At the Walther Collection, 24 cyanotypes from his series “Terreno Ocupado” depicted scenes from a city in frenzied motion. The color becomes a kind of lattice, an opening into all the contradictions and pleasures of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In one memorable print, a young man stands in front of a store—a relic of an earlier era—his fingers arched around his jaw as if to ask, “Where do I go from here?”
History, in this exhibition, is a site of frequent return. Looking through old family photo albums, South African multimedia artist Kganye discovered images of her mother—who died in 2010—as a young woman, one who in the artist’s words, was “individual, fashionable, determined . . . like the beautiful Black women seen in Drum magazine.” Kganye enacted scenes from these albums, using the same lighting, surroundings, and clothing whenever possible, in an effort to better understand her mother and her mother’s experience. Using Photoshop, she superimposed the new snapshots over the old. In the works in the resulting series, “Ke lefa laka,” Kganye becomes a ghostly double of her mother, barely separable from her. The sweep of history, however vast, invariably narrows to family lore, like a river traced to its source. To be entwined with the past is to come to terms with one’s body in the present; it is to be a living archive.
In the video series “Table Manners,” Zina Saro-Wiwa—who divides her time between New York City and Nigeria—presents six Ogoniland men and women eating dishes traditional to the Niger Delta. In sequences titled Victor Eats Garri and Okro Soup with Goat Meat, Alex Eats Cocoyam with Palm Oil, Grace Eats Garden Egg with Groundnut Butter, Felix Eats Garri and Egusi Soup, Barisuka Eats Roasted Ice Fish and Mu, and Lewa Eats Roasted Corn and Boiled Pear, the action begins with the eater gazing steadily at the camera, an acknowledgment of being observed. Then, after a few minutes, they begin to bite, chew, swallow, and drink, taking the viewer back to a time when their customs of cooking and eating were not ethnographic. As a record of Ogoniland life, “Table Manners” replaces cultural analysis with the tedium of the familiar. As I watch these individuals, who look back at me without fear or favor, I see a quotidian history presented with such straightforwardness that I cannot look away.
Johannesburg-based artist Simon Gush is interested in the lives of places. His installation “The Yellow Jersey,” consists of black-and-white photographs taken in Maputo, Mozambique, interspersed with texts. The photographs are printed on aluminum, one of Mozambique’s most important exports, while the texts reflect on the city’s past and present. One, accompanying an image of an exuberantly angled glass and concrete structure, reads, “The modernist buildings may still be elegant, their lines thrusting forward into the future of the socialist revolution, but the slow tropical decay pulls back. An attrition.” Gush’s photographs are themselves testaments to the specifics of time and place—printed in a now defunct South African photo lab, the images shown here were unique—marked by irregularities of color not found in subsequent editions.
Narratives make detours, histories are recycled, and images become palimpsests. All documents are to some degree fictional. Here, artworks tend more toward fable than fact. To argue that history is nonlinear is not simplistic. It is affirmative. The histories depicted in this exhibition, supposing they were glass, refracted and scattered as much as they reflected and contained.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 115 under the title “‘Recent Histories.’”