The photographic gaze that predominated over Africa, until almost the end of the 20th century, came from outside the continent, with its clichés inherited from colonialism, with its recurrence to the exotic. The swing of the pendulum came in 1997, when the project and book was unveiled at the Johannesburg Biennial (South Africa) The album of black photography / Look at me, in which the South African photojournalist Santu Mofokeng, who died in 2020, showed a compilation of images taken between 1890 and 1950 by bourgeois South African families of their private lives and their members. Mofokeng’s project had a protest intention: we are human beings and we want to tell how we are. It is the work with which the exhibition opens Social events. Portrait and collective imagination. African photography in The Walther Collection, long title for the star exhibition of this edition of PHotoEspaña, at the Círculo de Bellas Artes until August 22. There are about 400 images to get a good idea of the history of African photography.
PHOTO GALLERY: Images of the exhibition on African photography
Africa and women photographers lead PHotoEspaña 2021
The works come from the Walther Collection, a German institution – with offices in Ulm (Germany) and New York (USA) – which, among other collections, houses “a collection of photography and visual art by African or Afro-descendant artists”, it is explained in the exhibition, which only in what they consider “vernacular images”, of Africa above all, exceeds 5,000. It is not the first time that pieces from this collection have been seen in Spain, but it is surely the most complete. It was born 10 years ago by the hand of Artur Walther, a German-American collector. It was planned that all this would have been told last year, but the pandemic postponed it in the framework of PHotoEspaña 2020, which worked in jerks, to avoid confinements, curfews and restrictions. This June 2 has seen the return to almost normality of this festival of photography and visual arts, with the presentation of six exhibitions and the traditional meeting, although without the beer, in the fresh air of the Botanical Garden.
The person in charge of messing around in the Walther Collection has been the guest curator at this edition of the festival, Elvira Dyangani Ose, a 47-year-old from Cordoba, of Equatorial Guinean origin, trained in Barcelona and New York, worked at the Atlantic Center of Modern Art, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and now directs The Showroom in London, “a platform to introduce young people artists ”, he explains to EL PAÍS. She points out that speaking of this exhibition as “Africa seen by Africans is simplistic”, and acknowledges that it is an “almost overwhelming” exhibition due to the number of images and the different styles and genres. “It is rather about highlighting the use of photography to tell that there are several Africas, it is true that some images are linked to the territory, but geography is not a category here. We also include individual stories, with their counterculture part, ”he adds. Among these, the project by Lebohang Kganye stands out, a South African photographer who, through double exposures, composed images of her with her mother, who died shortly before. An act of love and a poetic result, and something spooky.
Asked about the mobilizations months ago in several countries as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dyangani points out that the exhibition would have coincided with those protests, but the coronavirus prevented it, and about the returns of African art by, for example, French museums , is shown “enemy of great gestures” and “rather a supporter of small steps.” As perhaps this exhibition is, in which there is work by “32 modern and contemporary photographers, plus a score of authors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then there are unidentified authors,” he explains. She recalled, with humor, an equivocal moment related to the color of her skin, when a professor at the Universidad de Bellas Artes de la Autónoma de Barcelona told her that it would be logical for her to dedicate herself to African art. “My family taught me that what others think of you does not have to define you.”
Of the works exhibited, she emphasizes the various series of magnificent portraits, almost always in black and white, such as the street shots of the Malian Seydou Keïta, who died in 2001, whose work was hardly known until the Arles Encounters of 1994. There are especially original portraits because the women “pose reclining like odalisques, but with their backs turned”, the work of Malick Sidibé, one of the greats of African photography, who died in 2016. Another series is what the curator calls “taxonomy of hairstyles ”: heads with hair collected, fanned, intertwined … there is a handful of the well-known work, with more than 1,000 pieces, that the Nigerian JD Okhai Ojeikere made in the sixties and seventies, with women from his country. There is also a section on the body, in which, in addition to nudes, it is taken as a space for tattoos or as a canvas to paint.
The implantation of a racist political and social system such as the apartheid in South Africa it is the target of several of the selected photographers. Scenes of violence could be expected, but it has been chosen to show another side, implicit, of that situation, the daily life in shanty towns of the black population, such as the documentary work of David Goldblatt.
With all this, what is wanted, from a critical perspective, is “to redefine the African identity beyond that generated from the West,” says the curator. Photography, as a platform to “break with the European canon and dismantle the idea of race,” he adds. Precisely, Against the race is the title of the other exhibition that he has curated, with works of audiovisual art, which can be seen in Matadero Madrid from June 3.
Several showcases in the room show that prejudiced vision of the white man, with old postcards and visiting letters, in sepia, dated between 1870 and 1930, which capture the look of “the African as part of the landscape, as one more element of the fauna. and flora, ”adds Dyangani. They are snapshots of men in loincloths and with spears, of Bushman tribes.
The tour closes with two sets of facing portraits. On the one hand, one of the best known names in current African photography, the Cameroonian Samuel Fosso, with several of his famous self-portraits, in which he is transfigured, almost always with humor, into famous people: Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Miles Davis or Muhammad Ali as it appeared on the well-known cover of Esquire of the boxer pierced by arrows like Saint Sebastian. On the other, the faces of the young people that the South African Zanele Muholi photographed in 2018. In a beautiful black and white, all pose with clean eyes and a point of challenge, as if they were not afraid of what the future brings.