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What Does Africa Look Like?

A new photography show at ICP reminds us to reexamine the clichés of the Western eye.

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Boubacar Touré Mandémory's Couleurs de Pêche from the series "Capitales Africaines" (2000-2005), at ICP.  

In America, we rarely see Africa through African eyes. Writers and photographers from the West have created an impression of the continent that instead suits Western tastes and interests. Africa is villagers in mud huts, apartheid, Soweto, famine, exotic animals, tribal violence, National Geographic, the ravages of aids, African-Americans looking for roots. At the International Center of Photography, Okwui Enwezor has mounted an exhibit, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” that is resolutely by and about Africans. The pictures—mostly taken in the last five years, often by fairly young photographers—do not avoid the traditional themes in a self-conscious way. They just appear fresh and somehow unburdened, at once postcolonial and post-ideological.


Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko's Nonkululeko (2004).  

To give just one example: South Africa looks very different to me after this exhibit. I’ve never been there, but the vast flow of articles, essays, and photographs about the country has certainly created in me a powerful image of place. A stark black-and-white image. A false and clichéd image. It was a shock—an awakening shock—to come upon the bursting contemporary colors worn by the fashion-struck people portrayed by Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko on the streets of Johannesburg. And a surprise to see the wry, intelligent, and irreducibly distinctive faces of South African gold miners in Zwelethu Mthethwa’s large portraits: Aren’t the country’s miners supposed to be an anonymous, faceless, oppressed class? And disorienting to see Mikhael Subotzky’s lively, fractured images of a teeming prison. Incarceration in South Africa does not just simply mean the noble image of Nelson Mandela. And enriching to come upon Guy Tillim’s cityscapes, which, while showing the effects of racism and poverty, also appear steeped in mysterious messages and symbols that have little to do with the clichés of outrage and despair. (Misery, too, has its dull conventions.) In one picture, we see two destitute figures sleeping on a rooftop, which is hardly unusual. But above them is a graffiti-strewn wall that sharply contrasts with the implacable grid of a modern building. And an invisible hand seems to have positioned the two bodies so that, somehow, they seem to be dreaming the graffiti.

In 1996, Enwezor co-curated a show about African photographers for the Guggenheim Museum. He emphasized portraiture, a genre favored by a population that, like most groups just becoming familiar with the camera, treated photography as a way to record and commemorate individuals. And there remains something still, ghostly, and timeless in certain images on display in this new show. For example, the Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye creates silent, painterly photographs of people and interiors in Addis Ababa; the inhabitants may live in straitened circumstances, but every object in his interiors has found a right and loving place. But more often than not the African lens seems to shift about restlessly. Enwezor’s selection emphasizes modern and urban Africa, a flickering place that’s breaking apart and coming together in new and sometimes eccentric ways. The photographers themselves sometimes are made of varied pieces. Theo Eshetu lives in Europe, even if his family originally comes from Ethiopia. His film Trip to Mount Ziqualla is a fractured depiction of a religious pilgrimage that appears at once ancient and contemporary.

It’s impossible, of course, to capture in a show of photographs a kaleidoscopic continent as large and culturally diverse as Africa. What, for example, does northern Africa have to do with southern Africa? Would we ever make a show about “Asian Photographers” or “European Photographers”? A survey like “Snap Judgments” will inevitably appear somewhat unfocused. But clarity can sometimes conceal. Right now, a blurred succession of glimpses is just what’s required to break down fixed preconceptions about Africa. (There will be plenty of time in the future for exhibits that focus intensively on a single African artist or culture.) The organizers of “Snap Judgments” have highlighted a picture by the Senegalese Boubacar Touré Mandémory called Couleurs de Pêche (“Colors of Fishing”) that beautifully conveys the opening-outward spirit of this particular show. We see a man running—he could be dancing—across a gorgeous blur of blue, yellow, and pink netting. He’s not about to be caught.

Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography
International Center of Photography. Through May 28.


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