If only all the politicians and pop stars who jumped on the Africa bandwagon, and all the sound bites, ballyhooing and photo-ops had any real effect. Whether on the day to day struggles throughout the continent or, much less any serious impact on the on-going conflicts in Darfur, around the Great Lakes, terrorism in Egypt, or strife and drought in Nigeria, there is little evidence of success.
Equally, imagery from Africa was once also only the purview of Westerners jetting in for the latest coup, episode of cholera or Aids, starvation, or natural disaster – if they were photojournalists; or for the scenic savannahs, photogenic megafauna, and comely, scantily clad Africans – if they were tourists or art photographers. Perhaps only Peter Beard has done all of the above at the same time, but that’s another story. What was missing from the whole picture, of course, were images by Africans themselves about whatever interested them, be it art or politics.
There have been a few exceptions: Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita and Zwelethu Mthethwa are among the continent’s best known photographers in the international art world. Yet despite several shows of African photographers, among the earliest major work, In/Sight African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, which debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1996, and Africa Remix at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Hayward Gallery in London, last year – and despite the long established photography festival in Bamako, Mali, there have been few major efforts to bring African photography to the world stage.
With this in mind, the latest effort to bring African photography to the West, Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, at the ICP in New York is a great leap forward. Not surprisingly, it is also curated by Okwui Enwezor (Calabar, Nigeria, 1963), who was responsible for the Guggenheim show and for the African platforms of the 11th Dokumenta in Kassel, Germany, 2002. With Simon Njami (Cameroon, 1962), curator of Africa Remix, Enwezor has been instrumental in raising the profile of African photography at home and abroad.
Although Snap Judgments presents more than 200 works by 35 photographers from more than 12 countries, it is necessarily a snapshot of contemporary photography from Africa, a continent of more than 70 countries and more than 800 million people. Still, Enwezor has done a remarkable job by bringing a wide range of perspectives, “platforms” or “positions” in art-speak, on photography ranging from concept art to political journalism and documentary photography while exploring issues of race, nationalism, globalisation, and daily life. Enwezor emphasises presenting a photography against conventional Western images of wars and famines and a prevailing image of “Afro-pessimism”. While they do exist in the imagery here, they take place mostly off camera.
Several bodies of work stand out as documents of a new African vision of photography. The Nigerian collective, Depth of Field, six Lagos based photographers, portrayed contemporary Lagos and Nigerian neighbourhoods in Africa and the UK.
Their work was greatly stimulated by their participation in the photo festival in Bamako, then curated by Njami, several years ago when they noticed the complete absence of African photography documenting contemporary African cities. Andrew Dosunmu covered the street and fashion side of contemporary African photography as did Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, whose photograph from Johannesburg, “Cindy & Nkuli, 2004”, graced the cover of the Snap Judgments catalogue. Yto Barrada, Omar D, and Luis Basto explored the spell of desire, for work, romance, and for a different culture, that affects millions of Africans longing to reach Europe. Otobong Nkanga examined the interface between rural Africa and the ever-encroaching cities at the point where country shacks give way to housing developments. Guy Tillim’s images from Johannesburg represented a hard look at the new, post-Apartheid urbanisation. Zwelethu Mthethwa’s oversize portraits depicted industrial workers and farmers. Mikhael Subotzky photographed the crowded prisons of South Africa and stitched them into digital panoramas. Mamadou Gomis’s newspaper articles and images for Le Journal covered daily life in Dakar, Senegal. Randa Shaath took a bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Cairo and discovered a world both private and public that is completely unseen by those walking the streets. Boubacar Touré Mandémory, also from Dakar, covered a series of African capitals in vibrant colour while Sada Tangara presented a darker face of urban poverty in night time black and white images of people sleeping rough in the big cities. Sohra Bensemra documented women police and families in post-conflict Algeria.
Obviously, Snap Judgments has a major “art photography” component, and African art photography has been established at international levels for some years. What was rewarding from Enwezor’s Snap Judgments selection was its diversity and the relative youth of the photographers. Most were under 35 years old, and only a few were in his 1996 Guggenheim show. The effort this show represents to demonstrate that there other points of view out there than which we in the West seldom see should be respectfully acknowledged and the photographers celebrated.
To come back to the Year of Africa and other images of Africa, the winner of this year’s World Press Photo of the Year [Simon Njami was also on the jury and several other Africans were represented among this year’s prize winners]: Finbar O’Reilly, a Canadian living in West Africa for several years, said of his winning entry, “Here are some pictures from a continent that cannot be represented by a single picture.” It is to curator Okwui Enwezor’s credit that Snap Judgments presents the widest diversity of images from the most diverse continent on earth, Africa. When looking at Africa, we, everybody from East to West, from North to South, and from Africa itself should look at Africa differently and avoid the clichés his title provokes. Okwui Enwezor all but demands that everybody, Africans and non-Africans, learn to look at images and image makers from Africa as full participants in the global game of image making and representation on the world stage.