BY Kobena Mercer in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
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Issue 43

Africa by Herself: African Photography from 1840 to the Present

BY Kobena Mercer in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

African photography has entered the fashion cycle. A recent Janet Jackson video featured a model mimicking Samuel Fosso's self-portraits as a post-colonial ingenue in underwear. Seydou Keita's portraits were enlarged to a gigantic scale when shown at the Gagosian Gallery last year. Organised by the editorial team behind Revue Noire, this exhibition alters the interpretative context by presenting African photography historically.

Drawing on eight years of archival research, 'Africa by Herself' reveals distinct regional traditions that date back to the 1880s, when Africans acquired technical skills as a result of interaction with Europeans in coastal cities. George Da Costa gave up his job as manager of the Church Missionary Society bookstore and opened a Lagos studio in 1895. In Madagascar, Ramilijoana and Razakar Studios produced sepia-toned portraits of mixed-race Malagasy women adorned with marcel-wave hairstyles. Full-length portraits of the Togolese bourgeois by Alex Agbaglo Acolatse depicted sitters against trompe l'oeil backdrops, potted plants and oriental carpets that would not be out of place among their Edwardian counterparts.

With such photographs as evidence of the cosmopolitanism involved in Africa's encounter with modernity, the exhibition complements the Guggenheim's 1996 'In/sight' exhibition of African photographers since 1940. But it also surpasses the reactive view that the key motive was to counteract colonial photography. Whereas studio portraiture was important for 19th-century Black Americans like John Presley Ball because it offered control of self-representation, the French West African tradition suggests more of a transcultural parallel than a dialectical reply to European perceptions. Numerous framed photographs in the backgrounds of informal portraits of Senegalese women, at home in the 30s, imply a process whereby Western conventions were adapted to indigenous tastes and local choices.

Photographic technologies were also used against the grain of their intended purposes. Itinerant photographers of the 40s, such as Daniel Amichia and Joseph Agbejelou, travelled across colonial borders to produce identification photos for passports. Against a plein air canvas background, Cornelius Azaglo photographed market traders and labourers on the Ivory Coast/Ghana border, but his adept control over lighting conditions created images uncannily reminiscent of Irving Penn's Worlds in a Small Room. Meissa Gaye introduced various props, such as a patterned fabric backdrop, which influenced the mise-en-scène of decorative plenitude found among subsequent doyens of the genre such as Seydou Keita and Abderamane Sakaly.

As newspaper publishing grew in the 50s, photo agencies expanded options for actuality-based coverage. Drum magazine launched numerous photojournalists in South Africa, including Peter Magubane. Lightweight cameras also meant that Phillipe Koujina in Niger and Malick Sidibe in Mali could update the itinerant tradition, portraying clients in urban settings in exchange for a fee. What I liked most about the exuberant Zairian youths photographed by Depara in the 70s is precisely that they couldn't give a monkey's about the colonial gaze - enjoying nightlife or showing off, they obviously saw themselves as having fun with the ephemera of modernity. And why not?

The second part of 'Africa by Herself', devoted to contemporary work, is less successful. Observational studies of Soweto interiors by Santu Mofekeng and Zwelethu Methetwa come crashing up against elaborate tableaux by Patrice Tchicaya and Rotimi Fani-Kayode that revolve around the male nude. Pierrot Men's bland travelogues romanticise Madagascan peasantry, while Ricardo Rangel's candid snapshots of Maputo bars in Mozambique reveal subtle differences between Lusophone approaches to documentary realism and the hard-edged, social-witness approach among Anglophone photographers like John Leibenberg in Namibia.

Although the curators could have decided more clearly which story they wanted the contemporary material to tell, the sense of discovery prompted by the historical section was exhilarating because it overturned received assumptions about ethnicity, temporality and technology. The reception of African artefacts is often bedevilled by anxieties over 'de-contextualisation', which is often made to sound like the worst thing you could ever do to an art object. The paradox is that while de-contextualisation lies at the heart of post-Duchampian Conceptualism, which relies on an author-centred account whereby the artist's intentions alter the meaning of the Readymade, the current circulation of African photographs - most of which were never intended as 'art' to begin with - is testimony to a reception-oriented viewpoint, which holds that meanings attributed to a found object are engendered by the beholder's response. Bringing such cross-cultural vicissitudes to light, this exhibition has quietly established a benchmark for more informed debates on the wide-ranging consequences of visual hybridisation.

Kobena Mercer is professor of history of art and African American studies at Yale University, New Haven, USA.