Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia, reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines, German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features. Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.
The spectator is confused. These aesthetical, disturbing photographs make him feel so ill at ease that he is tempted to look away, confronted with the repressed reality revealed by the artist who makes him question the body in society, the body as an “ object of socialization”
Ed: Struck by the remarkable colors and tones used to tell the story of these two social/cultural groups.
Another Africa and K.L.V. have collaborated on a series of diptychs that compare an intensely rich source of inspiration born in Africa with the realms of the worldwide arts and fashion. On view, the ingenuity of African masqueraders, gleaning mother nature’s closet to create visually arresting disguises. Juxtaposed with contemporary art and fashion images, the pairings highlight the qualities that connect, complement and contrast, but ultimately celebrate creative ingenuity.
Within the rather Spartan confines of the Walther Collection Project Space are to be found three worlds: Weimar-era Germany, photographed by August Sanders in his life-long project to record the ‘Face of Time’, late-colonial Mali, where Seydou Keïta operated a portable portrait studio in Bamako, and, of course, 21st century New York.
Ed: Pairing of bodies of work that are on the surface unrelated.
I am always intrigued by images that apply the aesthetics and tools of commercial photography to subjects in the social sphere. The better-known images along these lines are those of Richard Avedon who dragged his huge large format view camera and a team of assistants across the American West[Google images] to record oil workers, farmers, drifters, etc., who worked and lived at the margins of that part of the United States.
Irving Penn also traveled to Dahomey (Benin today) in 1967 on an assignment for Vogue magazine to shoot landscapes, village scenes, Legba shrines and portraits in that country. As highlighted in the quote below, with his portraits his aim was not to faithfully record subjects as he found them but to insert himself and his vision in the picture-making process.
I was excited at the prospect of a Dahomey trip, but it was clear that in the native village it was going to be near impossible to find buildings in which to set up daylight studios. It was at this point that I considered for the first time a practical way of constructing a portable studio — demountable, sufficiently simple to be put up by unskilled labor ….
The young people of the village were lined up outside. I walked among them and chose those I wanted to photograph, roughly composing each picture in my mind as I went.
Irving Penn from “Worlds in a Small Room”, 1974 excerpted from the book “Photographs of Dahomey”.
More recently there is the work of two photographers* (Ken Hermann and JoeyL), who hauled studio strobes and medium format digital cameras to the Omo Valley in the Horn of Africa like Penn before them. In various parts of his site JoeyL describes his process from shooting in Ethiopia to returning there to present prints to the subjects of his images to hosting an exhibition of his prints in Los Angeles.
Attending this kind of image-making (as opposed to image taking) is often the question of manipulation and artifice. The problem is that this kind of work occupies the in-between space between reality and fiction. The commercial photographer’s work is thought to use the artifice of commerce including removing the subjects from their natural environment and putting them in the controlled environment of the photographer’s studio, subject to his/her agenda. This is a very subjective process, very much driven by the photographer’s goal, whether it is to portray beauty and dignity in their subjects or otherness and exoticness (grotesqueness?). This is a process quite separate from the stated goal of the documentary/news photographer who records images as a neutral witness taking unaltered pictures of what he/she finds. Given this lofty goal, the images of a commercial photographer in this realm get the side eye as not rising to this level of “honesty”. This process is especially problematic here in Africa where most of the widely seen image-making is by outsiders many of whom may be just looking for new and interesting stuff to take pictures of.
As I learn to appreciate images more, I believe there is no elemental/objective truth to be found in a photograph. There is only the image itself and the decisions the photographer took to make the image, good, bad or indifferent, subjective or objective. In this view, there is room for me to see reportage on the reality of life in the Horn of Africa on a news web site and a gallery presentation of the people who live in this harsh, arid and thus violence-prone but stunningly beautiful place.
*It is these images that inspired me to write this post, trying to work out my reaction to them.
AFRONAUTS: File this under: “a future that never was”. Photographer Cristina De Middel uses the fact of a failed 1960’s Zambian proposal for a space program as a starting point for a photo series called “Afronauts”. Lovely concept. Beautiful tones in the images.
Video feature: “Delphine Diallo: Creative Control”
MIXED MEDIA: I discovered Delphine Diallo’s work a few years ago with Magic Photo Studio a series of painted on/around photos created after a trip to Senegal. She has a current project, an art book titled “The Gift” being funded via Kickstarter. Go there and support the work of this artist-to-watch.
FELA’S QUEENS: Kalakuta Queens, circa 2011. Photographer James Petrozello’s portraits of the dancers of “Fela!”, the Broadway show currently touring the US. WARNING: some images NSFW.
Trailer for “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” a film by Charlie Ahearn
“As a street photographer, he was breaking all the traditions, of the Robert Frank traditions of street photography, having to do with spontaneity, and having to do with capturing images…
“Yes, he did everything that they would say was wrong. He would spend time with his subjects first. He would the pose his subjects, and in a very theatrical way. To which the earlier idea, it destroyed the life of what it was about. But I immediately perceived that this was an expression that was essentially hip hop. I had seen flyers of people posing like this from the late ’70s. In other words, the way he posed these people was not something that he made up. These were, in a sense, traditional cultural signifiers. They go back to the street culture of the ’70s.”
South African photographer Frank Marshall’s images of cowboy-clad metaleros from Botswana collected into a body of work he calls “Visions of Renegades”. Snip from article on the otherwise ribald Vice web site:
“… many metalheads in Botswana are cowboys from the villages and farms, so they mix the cowboy image with a biker metal look. Many wear hunting knives and parts of dead animals. We drink from the hollowed-out cow horns.”
Since being ‘rediscovered’ at the first ‘Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie’ in Bamako in 1994, respect for Malick Sidibé’s photographic biography has grown steadily in both the Western art world, as well as among a young generation of African photographers. His photographs are popular because they depict Africa at a time of awakening and hope, and a young generation that one might be inclined to call the jeunesse dorée, were it not for their extreme poverty compared to their bourgeois European peers.
However, something else fascinates in Sidibé’s photographs, more powerful than their nostalgia, vitality, sensitivity and humour. Something that goes beyond their innovative visual form; the photographs evoke a delicate balance of ‘imperceptible forces’. The photographer gives his models space for self-expression, ultimately the gift of every good portraitist.
PHE- Mali’s independence came about in 1960. How did the new political situation influence your own work?
MS- It wasn’t so much our independence as it was Western music that changed many things during that time. Music was really the revolution because after 1957, rock music, hula-hoop, swing, etc., came to the country. Music was a true revolution in Mali.
Malick Sidibe on the influences on Mali youth in the early 60’s, that found it’s way into his work.
New video from Spoek Mathambo for the song “Control”. Snip from Dazed Digital article premiering the video:
In collaboration with one of South Africa’s most influential photographers Pieter Hugo, and cinematographer Michael Cleary, the new video explores township cults and teen gangs. Shot on location in a squatted train boarding house in Langa, Cape Town, the video features a cast mostly made up of local neighborhood kids who run their own dance troop, Happy Feet.
In order to present various dimensions of the work of African artists and artisans worldwide, The Global Africa Project is organized around several thematic ideas. These include: the phenomenon of intersecting cultures and cultural fusion; the branding and co-opting of cultural references; how art and design is promoted in the international market and the creative global scene; the use of local materials; and the impact of art-making on the economic and social condition of local communities.
Relatedly: Interview with Ivorian fashion designer Emeka Alams here.
WEBSITES: Another Africa: Unravelling a Hidden Continent. Founder Missla Libsekal’s beautiful site serves as a “contemporary vision of Africans, Africa and those related to the continent and its peoples in the areas of culture, art, fashion, architecture, design, music, photography and more ….”
Screenshot from home page of Another Africa web site.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Delphine Diallo: The Great Vision Franco-Senegalese graphic artist/photographer’s portfolio site. Still love “Magic Photo Studio” series after first seeing it in Clam magazine a while ago.
PHOTOGRAPHY: The Destruction of Sophiatown: Rare Color Photos, 1959 Great essay by John Edwin Mason illustrated with images on the cultural/racial significance of Sophiatown an interracial Jo’burg suburb destroyed in 1955 to make way for white residential area. By the way, if you are not a regular at Mason’s blog or following him on Twitter, I suggest you do that now. He is an eloquent voice on the photography scene in general, but Africa in particular.
“A new synthesis of urban African culture sprang up here, shouting for recognition. Materially poor but intensely social; crime-ridden and violent but neighborly and self-protective; proud, bursting with music and literature, swaggering with personality, simmering with intellectual and political militance, Sophiatown was a slums of dreams, a battleground of the heart in the war for the city’s and even the country’s suppressed black soul.
“Sophiatown produced leaders in many fields, enough to create a ‘Sophiatown Renaissance’ comparable to New York’s Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Africans in other cities looked to Sophiatown for inspiration, and the location became a symbol as well as a partial realisation of their aspirations.
“Even as government bulldozers were leveling its houses, Sophiatown generated a cultural flowering unequaled in the urban history of South Africa.”
On Nov. 30, National Geographic photographer Brent Stirton presented his photography from his and Peter Gwin’s reporting trip to Timbuktu at Dateline: Sahara, an event held at the National Geographic Headquarters and co-sponsored by the Pulitzer Center.