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Focus on Photography in Africa

Publié dans Photography  |  janvier 17, 2015

Focus on Photography in Africa
African photographers express their unique visual language differently compared to their Western counterparts. When Western photography engages Africa, it often depicts pathological images of poverty, disaster, and disease. In fact, it almost never represents Africans in ordinary situations. So, images of crisis frequently overshadow other representations.

Two different perspectives

Yet photography captures many realities in Africa, depending on one’s perspective. For some art collectors, African photography evokes commercial studio portraitures that predominated during the independence years. For example, several works from Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé – both critically acclaimed Malian photographers offer a very good illustration of what was trending during that period. In this instance, African photography was limited to black/white portraits.

While for several curators, African photography should compete with contemporary artistic expressions emanating from the West. For instance, we’re observing the emergence of a generation of African artists working on the continent or abroad, who reveal an emphasis on documentary, conceptual art, and fashion photography. This new guard, which includes photographers such as Pieter Hugo, Zanele Muholi, and Aida Muluneh, is creating a new chapter in African photography.

Inna Modja by Malick Sidibe
Inna Modja by Malick Sidibé

Inna Modja by Malick Sidibe
Inna Modja by Malick Sidibé

International and local representations

With international exhibitions like In/Sight African Photographers (1996) and Snap Judgments (2006), events like African Photography Encounters of Bamako (since 1994), and contests like the Prize for Contemporary African Photography of piclet.org (since 2012), today’s generation of talented African artists are attracting an international clientele by providing another look at Africa. They use photography as a tool to draw a panorama of different social realities. In so doing, they try to introduce their audience to the diversity of contemporary African photography, while revealing the misrepresentations found in Western views of Africa.

However, the number of art galleries dedicated to promote African photography on the continent is still few. Photography is part of the African heritage for over a century now. But contemporary African photographers all too often still toil in precarious conditions that are not favorable to the development of artistic practices aligned with international standards. They are forced to embrace change of the global economy and local market by limiting themselves to commercial demands such as wedding, fashion, portrait, and photojournalism. Still, they are able to express other facets of their talent through artist residencies, which are burgeoning on the continent and abroad.

Abdullahi Mohammed with Gumu by Pieter Hugo
Abdullahi Mohammed with Gumu by Pieter Hugo

A Traffic Intersection by Pieter Hugo
A Traffic Intersection by Pieter Hugo

Conflicting realities

So, African photographers find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have to deal with the realities of the art market which has become increasingly global. On the other hand, they have to face the challenges of the African continent which favors more the commercial demand to the artistic creativity. As a result of these conflicting realities, Africans and Westerners do not support the same photographers or the same photographer performs its work according to customer demand.

For this reason, it is challenging for an international event held locally such as the Bamako Encounters to gain some traction from the locals because they don’t identify themselves with this festival. In fact, international events target mainly the public from Western countries. Thus, finding a balance between the needs of African photographers (with respect for their artistic activity) and the wishes of Western sponsors (who are primarily driven by profit) remains a perpetual challenge.

Being Series by Zanele Muholi
Being Series by Zanele Muholi

Being Series by Zanele Muholi
Being Series by Zanele Muholi