The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives In Photographic Portraiture From Africa at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery, is an exciting show of four contemporary African photographers. While they adhere to some of the formal conventions of portraiture, these photographers reject the notion of portraits as documents of identity; rather they expand the definition of portraiture to include fiction and decontextualization, as well as documentary and theatrical tropes.
The curators are to be congratulated not only for the quality of this show, but also their tenacity in making it happen – this exhibit had its genesis during a visit the curators made to the Photography Biennale in Bamako, Mali in 2007. Nine years is a lot of patience, but I can see why they were determined to make it happen. I attended a tour led by two of them.
Photographic portraiture in Africa goes back to the 1840’s. The first section of the show provides some historical context through a small group of portrait photos from the 1800’s and 1900’s – mostly formal, some ethnographic, with their subjects almost always facing forward. Hanging nearby are two very large (∼ 5’ x 5’) contemporary photos of sitters who don’t meet the traditional conventional standards, but who are imbued with dignity by the photographer: in one we see two young men in suits and hats, sitting in a rather bare kitchen in a shanty town; the other depicts a young man standing defiantly in the middle of a dusty street, holding a hyena on a chain leash, looking straight at us.
Then we moved on to work by the four photographers featured in this exhibition.
Saïdou Dicko, from Burkina Faso, has five photos of a man getting on his bike – but we just see his shadow, and that of his bike, projected on a bright green wall. In another photo, against an orange building wall we see the shadow of a young boy, seemingly posed for battle. By not giving us flesh & blood subjects, the photographer doesn’t let us see their race, identity, or status, but he has, nonetheless, given us portraits of modern African urban dwellers. Through their shadows we can, perhaps, grasp their essence.
Mohammed Camera hails from Mali, and the show has images from his Malian Rooms, a series of domestic scenes – some unkempt, some posed – taken in his residential compound. Framing and composition are very important in his work. Because we’re always looking at the subject through something, i.e., a doorway, a window, the pictures reveal not the subject, but the photographer and his process. In another room are photos from the series Some Mornings, in which he creates little mise-en-scènes, many without people, using this device to investigate the status of the subject (which doesn’t always match the title) resulting in images that are often isolated, dreamy, reflective.
The last room has several very large format (2’ x 3’ and larger) extraordinary works by two photographers where the human element is the anchor. George Osodi is a Nigerian photojournalist who creates environmental portraits set in the Niger Delta. He places his subjects in an electric, swirling, menacing background of intense colors, imbued with extraordinary tension. In these images, he personifies the link between political decisions, environmental degradation, and their human consequences. The show also includes two images from Hall of Fame in which he’s pieced together head shots of political leaders to create a new portrait that you can’t really see if you’re too close.
Sammy Baloji, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is represented by work from his Memoir series. In these digital photo montages, he takes figures from colonial black & white photos – often prisoners doing hard labor – and places them in apocalyptic, color photos of present-day abandoned uranium and copper mines in Katanga Province. This juxtaposition is a bit disconcerting at first, but it lets you piece together the history that links these photos from two different eras. In this way he honors the early workers and indicts colonial and post-colonial rulers. The photo at left, is a riff on one of the historical photos at the beginning of the show.
The exhibit runs through December 10th. Be sure to get up to the Wallach Gallery, Schermerhorn Hall, 8th floor, Columbia University, 116th and Broadway before then.
On Friday, October 21st, from 1:00 to 6:00, The Wallach Gallery will host a symposium, bringing together artists, scholars, curators, critics, and cultural producers, to discuss current developments in photographic and video practices in Africa and the African Diaspora.