Celebrations / Negotiations – African Photography


In the 1990s, Gilberto Chateaubriand acquired a set of works by the most important African photographers. Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Jean Depara, Ambroise Ngaimoko, and J.D. Okhai Ojeikere demonstrate the African continent’s wealth of life during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. These photographs comprise a celebration of the different ways of life in the great African cities, the post-colonial day-to-day life, and the social structure revealed through studio portraits of anonymous people. However, these bodies that pose and offer themselves to our eyes, adorned by printed African fabrics, build a continuous game that brings together the spectator, the photograph, and the models in their many cultural differences. Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Jean Depara, Ambroise Ngaimoko, and J.D. Okhai Ojeikere have created images that break from the clichés that usually peg Africa as a homogeneous and primitive continent awaiting the gaze of the colonizer. Their perspectives are atypical, as they do not seek to define themselves as mere objects of interest, but to negotiate the very aesthetic, social, historical, and cultural conditions in which we find ourselves.

The works by Seydou Keïta, Jean Depara, J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Malick Sidibé, and Ambroise Ngaimoko, which are part of the Gilberto Chateaubriand collection, paint an intriguing picture of the “golden era” of African photography. The works express high-quality aesthetic projects that give us a solid glance at the African mentality and culture. It is necessary, however, to understand that the cohesion we see in these works is chiefly a result of similar production conditions. In this sense, "Celebrations / Negotiations" indicates the need for us to emotionally and critically position ourselves, bringing into question the myth of African unity, based on the ambiguity that characterizes photography: art and science.

The synchronicity of the independence processes in the African countries (1), for instance, is not a unity that takes place organically. It is dictated by the interests of the colonizing countries, attempting to keep the African nations in a permanent state of economic, if not political subservience. This desire for control explains the push that was responsible for accelerating the development of photography in the continent: after the independence, local populations are required to take pictures to be used in identification papers. This huge demand falls upon the few photographic studios in operation at the time. Between the 1960s and the middle of the 1980s (2), then, there is a proliferation of these studios, which are able to operate autonomously, since black and white pictures can be produced through a relatively artisanal process (3). The works of the artists in question, then, are a result of similar material conditions in different countries, such as Mali, Nigeria, and Angola, deriving from a period of momentary wealth that supports the African photographic studios. The artists participating in this exhibition are undoubtedly great portraitists as well as some of the best African photographers of the 20th century, who became known during the Bamako Photography biennials in Mali. Later, their works resonate in France (4), a country whose colonial and academic traditions motivate the production of studies and exhibits, either in the art field, or by the observation of photograph through anthropological and/or ethnographic lenses.

(1) For instance, a great part of the African countries becomes independent in 1960: Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mali, Republic of Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Togo, Zaire, Somalia, Congo, Gabon and Cameroon.
(2) Around 1985, the predominance of color photographs begins to hamper the autonomy of photographic studios, since the economy of photography becomes subject to the figure of the instantaneous lab worker/ owner.
(3) A relative autonomy in the photographic production and processing, since studios depend on the precarious importation or smuggling of papers, chemical products, and equipment, as an industry of photographic materials does not exist in the continent yet.
(4) Which explains the fact that some of the photographs displayed in the exhibition are contemporary prints.

If the unity imposed by the production structure defines the material question (the production of the documental portrait, the black and white picture), this post-independence period in the African countries coincides with a growing aesthetic experimentation with the environment, which is favored by the population’s interest in the photographic representation. During this period, photography progressively moves away from the documental concept of the portrait, although this seems to remain the center of the photographic universe in Africa. The aesthetic issue is developed over time, going from a formal portrait form that becomes increasingly creative until lifestyle chronicle and photojournalism. The resulting thematic variety allows us to deconstruct many of the clichés about life in the continent that prevail to this day.

In the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, photography in Africa was done by foreigners, to whom the continent was just an object of incursion and visual colonization. The resulting images are characterized by exoticism, and, later, by an Africa whose only wealth was nature. In sum, a stereotyped image of Africa is built: that of a homogeneous, poor country. Starting in the 1960s, photography builds a much more diverse image, dismantling the cliché of the primitive Africa, a result of an aesthetic sensitivity developed by African photographers. What characterizes this time of post-colonial photographic production is, first of all, the fact that it is done by Africans, and for Africans.

It is a photograph in which the relationship between the photographer and the subject matter is that of great familiarity. This can be noticed in the pictures as a sympathetic nearness between the photographer and the model; it is a look of complicity. At this time, themes and the way to visually formalize them are part of the same cultural frame, which does not necessarily mean that this image of Africa is less idealized than the one produced by foreigners – as is true of all photography, it is also partly a projection of that which one would like to be.
Therefore, one can notice the contrast between the formal portrait in which poses, backgrounds, and clothing emphasize tradition, and the other images – which show us a continent that seeks to represent itself as being integrated into the world, displaying a modern, informed, and rich life, at times in a very naïve way. The set of themes in these pictures is characterized by noticeable freedom and optimism, which can be explained not only by the acknowledgement of these individuals as citizens, but also by the fact that this citizenship only makes sense as it follows a relationship with the rest of the world. The images describe celebrations, but also negotiations – regarding aesthetics, identity, culture, even a future.
The quality of the works, however, cannot be understood just in relation to its theme set. We need to analyze the distinct problem that they add to the portrait genre. This cannot be done from the viewpoint of a centralized history of photography, under the modernistic sanction of an artistic ‘photographer’s eye’ that seeks to formally build the image, at least not on the basis of values defined by tradition.

If we relate the images with modern photography, with the construction formed by the photographer’s look, it becomes evident that the problem is not the outlook, the composition, the light, the texture or the cropping; maybe these elements are under construction. We need to consider, in fact, that the portrait is less open to the search for an autonomous form, which can be noticed, for instance, in Seydou Keïta’s portraits. In these, there is very little room for interference by the semantics of the photographic form: figures are centralized, their whole body is acknowledged. There is not a specific preoccupation with creating light problems. This is the case with the portrait of a man made in 1999, whose traditional pose reveals his social position. In the Yoruba tradition, his pose defines the portrait of a chief or Babalawo.

On the other hand, it is not adequate to compare these pictures to the portraits made in the 19th century. Although some correlations may be made with photographers like Nadar or Carjat, insofar as they are the founders of this photographic genre, this would necessarily mislead us to seeing the African photography as verisimilar and innocent, reinforcing the cliché that characterizes Africa as homogeneous and primitive, now from the viewpoint of the African photographer. Their goal, however, is not to capture the inside of the portraits, making them expose themselves through the poses, for instance. What is in question in these images is the model in his/her situation.

Even when a particular individual is represented, and photographers seek to aesthetically particularize this subject, they seem to feel the need to go beyond the individual. This “beyond,” however, is defined in relation to the model, and not to the device and its semantic issue, as is traditionally the case with modernist photography. In Keïta’s portraits, for instance, the goal is to particularize the subject within the social fabric, which implies placing him/her in a traditional pose or with marked dandyism. Sidibé arranges the bodies by placing them in relation to space, thus stressing the cubic representation of the picture. Ojeikere’s hairstyles turn heads into pedestals for the hair, which becomes an abstract sculptural form; he is less concerned with who is portrayed, and more with the question of the form which qualifies the head. Finally, it is necessary to wrap the models in African print fabrics, which appear not just as garments or as easily achieved infinite backdrops, but as a collision between abstract patterns, relating the photographed body to elegant and flat graphism. In any case, the presence of abstract elements qualifies the subject.

There is much to be said about the recurrent presence of these prints, and about this clash between patterns. Its widespread use is due to the economic domination endured by the continent: the designation of these fabrics as ‘wax print’ remits to the Dutch factory Vlisco which, since the 19th century, produced the fabrics whose beauty, durability and simplicity (for they just needed to be wrapped around the body) turned them into a traditional costume in part of the continent. The patterns traditionally used by the Africans are complex signs that can remit to objects and even traditional tales. Perhaps that’s why they carry such strong appeal and preserve their aesthetical relevance; they are inspiring for both the 60’s and the present visuality.

However, their use might go beyond their random usage: in The Sense of Order: a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, art historian E. H. Gombrich engaged in a profound study of ornaments, motifs, and patterns, analyzing their form, and seeking to understand their psychology. Upon reading this book, we could propose the hypothesis that a pattern is a representation of the Cosmos. Its creation is motivated by the rational ordering of the Universe. Each pattern reveals, at once, the object that originates it, how that object was abstracted, and the compositional logic that structures the pattern.

The problem each portrait implies, then, would be to reposition the subject, taking into account the addition of an empirical data to the image. The scope of this qualification goes beyond the social dimension: the picture is aesthetically supplemented in order to place the subject’s belonging within an order that surpasses reality as a material sphere. The clash between patterns indicates a deep need to review the order of the world in view of the acknowledgement that this order has been fractured, while at the same time aesthetically underlining this fracture. The idea is to situate the being in a symbolic sphere.

The portrayed plays: the body is exposed, but it’s not it that requires the negation of identity, but its narcissism. In a certain way, it’s about the same relation that appears in some of the other portrays of the collection, which seem to be indicators of a male dominant society, negatively revealed in such exhibitionism, androgyny and narcissism. However, it’s interesting that the refusal of identity of the model is produced by a mask. The mask seems to have been improvised, and its shape appears to be of an adult man or even of an animal. Surely, an infantilized mask corresponds to the adult body. It’s interesting that for us it’s not possible to observe such mask without making a relation with the traditional African masks, in relation to which the complex issue of form seemed to be lost or denied: is it our position outside of this culture that incites such relation? (5)
(5) Or perhaps it’s about another concept of the individual in action, since he/she is a cultural construction.

The traditional mask allowed, departing from this shape that communicates with immaterial forces, the negation of the individual and its identity, and let the body carry another anima, making possible the mediation of the relation between the tribe (the society, the spectators) and these forces. In these images, however, there is no religion, but perhaps the idea of the sacred remains, in the sense that identity is sacrificed, granting the courage to be exhibited, to expose that which one fears in the other, becoming an object of the regard. The very regard of the other situates and animates the photograph. There is the science of a new economy in this image, a narcissistic economy that relates objects and affections, in which the immaterial is redirected to serve the material, supplementing it.

In Keita and Ngaimoko’s photographs, there is acknowledgment – more than understanding – of the role of these bodies, the one who looks and the one who sees, and the one who shows and hides: the pragmatic acknowledgment of a voracious economy (of the look?). In the Western portrait tradition, the relationship between the outlook and the symbolic seems to be often trivialized due to the amalgamation between the body and the conventional elements; this is so that the individual may become susceptible of being read like a type, incorporating the picture into the issue of iconology. A dog next to a person then, is now interpreted as representing their faithfulness. A book, as being intellectual. These African portraits, however, seem to be seeking the opposite: the need to place the subject is not equivalent to conforming him/her to a convention, amounting instead to uniting him/her to abstract elements. It is clearly understood, then, that if photography is always attached to reality, it must achieve something greater.

In this sense, this African photograph seems to be taking a position which is contrary to art critic Rosalind Krauss’s words: “Whatever else its powers, the photograph could be called sub- or pre- symbolic, ceding the language of art back to the imposition of things.” (6) In other words, the photograph would always be linked to the denotation, the empiric and the particular, since in its essence we find the technical ability to represent reality. The symbolic would supposedly demand the presence of a legible conventionality, which would be needed in order to characterize a metaphor that would always be brought into question by the imperious presence of the photograph’s description of reality. Does realistic representation prevent the photograph from dealing with what is metaphorical, eternal, and essential?

The underlying problem of this affirmation derives from an opposition between connotation and denotation in the photograph, like an opposition between essence and appearance (in which art would be on the side of essence), or, to put the issue in historic terms, from the affirmation of art’s autonomy as an exclusion of nature, a viewpoint that relates some elements of modernism (and its historical criticism of the representation in art) to the Platonic thought. If modern thought deals strongly with exclusion to reach the essence of things, this photography that we see, on the contrary, talks about inclusion.

This photograph also positions itself against the purist outlook found in modernist photography, characterized by a photographer like Edward Weston, who thought that one needs to “photograph a rock, make it look like a rock, but be more than a rock,” (7) in order to seek conciliation between the representation and the abstraction, through a manipulation of the photographic language. In African photography, revealing the essence of things seems not to be paramount, as it is based on the concept that the photograph describes only what is apparent. It is not necessary to reunite what should never have been separated in the first place. Things are already more than they appear to be, even in a photograph. In this sense, the use of photography in Africa does not fit the expression “technical image”. A photograph is not a mechanical transcription of appearances, but a totem of things, an image of an animated thing.

(7) In NEWHALL, Nacy (ed.). The daybooks from Edward Weston. New York: Millerton Aperture vol. 2, 1973, p.154 apud GRUNDBERG, Andy e GAUSS, Kathleen McCarthy. Photography and art – interactions since 1948. New York: Abeville Press, 1987, p. 23.

In fact, in the photograph, the image begins as an agreement between the look and the technical perspective mediated by the camera; art and technique, nature and culture do not exclude each other, at least not initially. In the representation, the gaze goes from the observer to the vanishing point, which the Western tradition identifies as illusion.

The photograph, then, is seen as a simulation of reality that is devoid of essence. This visual axis is part of the perspective system, that is, of the structuring of the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. It corresponds to the intellectual institution of the distance that separates subject and object, defining them as positions that are materially determined – the subject and the object of the representation are structuring elements in a game of appearances. This distance is also the relation that situates subject and object as parallel, but also as alienated, indicating the control or desire, as Panofsky demonstrates so well in his Perspective as Symbolic Form.

It is intriguing that the same horizontal, half-height, axial framing – which simulates perfect neutrality, equating subject and object – is recurrent in every one of the pictures displayed in the exhibition. In the Yoruba culture, this view is called jijora, i.e. half-height mimesis. The photographer’s look meets his/her model, but the relationship between the subject and the object is as important as one between the object of the image and the world, and maybe that’s what makes Western photographic portraits so different from these African images.

The subject and the object are not alienated from one another by the photographer’s look, therefore, the cropping of the photograph does not split the subject from the world. This photograph is a discovery and an expression of belongings. What qualifies the being, his/her essence, is defined by this belonging that unveils itself, as opposed to a concept of the being’s autonomy, which is defined by inner qualities that are meant to be read.

The look that produces the mimesis, then, measures not only the subject and the model, the viewer and the photograph, but the subject and the world, which might be highly instrumental as we think of ourselves in relation to these images: celebrations and negotiations.

Credits: Story

“African Photography in the Gilberto Chateaubriand Collection” (Cezar Bartholomeu).

MAM Rio, 2016.

Credits: All media
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