How does African photography circulate in the United States? In what institutions is it shown? How does its meaning change according to the context in which it is shown, whether as anthropological documents or as contemporary art? What are the debates about African photography among scholars, curators and critics in the United States? The essay by Allison Moore attempts to answer these questions.
To understand African photography in relation to American scholarship requires that we examine the question of how photographs by Africans are circulated and publicized within the US: i.e. who supports photography by exhibiting it, writing about it, or documenting its histories, thus allowing a wider audience to become aware of current developments.?It is immediately striking and well-known that African photographic production and its resultant scholarship and exhibitions mostly take place in different politico-geographies. By and large, the photography that is produced in Africa and the diaspora is exhibited and written about in the US and Europe, although Mali’s Bamako Biennale and the dynamic exhibition scene in South Africa are two important exceptions to this general rule. The art photography produced by Africans in the diaspora tends to be privileged in Western art exhibitions over much photography made on the continent because diasporic artists tend to use concepts, aesthetics, and even media (access to and knowledge of digital technologies and complex software programs) that appeal to an international audience fascinated by the current mode of « global conceptualism. » (1)
In the US there have been relatively few exhibitions of African photography, however, to even prove this general point. In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (1996) and Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography (2006), both curated by Owkui Enwezor (In/sight with Clare Bell, Olu Oguibe, Danielle Tilkin, and Octavio Zaya) are the only two major exhibitions in the US that dealt solely with photography from Africa, aside from solo shows on major figures like Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso. Zwelethu Mthethwa and David Goldblatt have also been celebrated individually (Goldblatt at the Jewish Museum in New York in summer 2010; Mthethwa’s work has been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tracy Rose was shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) but South Africa’s artists are positioned differently vis à vis the international art world because of the country’s structure of gallery and museum networks. Indeed, perhaps exhibitions and accompanying catalogs on South Africa, like Tosha Grantham’s Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa, 1950 to the Present (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2009), can provide a model for future scholarship for photography across the continent, both in terms of limiting’African photography’ to national content and in providing a range of genres accompanied by thoughtful and critical scholarship.
In contrast to Enwezor, who has been said to privilege elite-educated artists, some of whom live and work outside of Africa, academic scholars tend to privilege what would be called’visual culture’ in the context of art historical discourse; i.e. photography produced as a commercial and social enterprise, rather than as a purely artistic one, by practitioners who live on the African continent. This seems to be true in German scholarship as well, seen in the work of Heike Behrend, Tobias Wendl, and Christraud Geary (who now lives and works in the US, but is of German heritage). (2)
The’visual culture’ approach to scholarship tends to focus less on individuals and more on cultural histories of the medium, and the problem that some critics see is that it does not seem to differ significantly from anthropological scholarship, which relegates art to one among many forms of cultural production. Anthropology as a discipline is seen as especially suspect in regard to the study of Africa as historically much anthropology was uncritical of its hegemonic approaches and the oppressive uses to which such scholarship was put.
It is important in this context to recognize that the schism between understanding photography as’fine art’ and as’visual culture’ exists in Western scholarship on photography as well, and that it is not simply in relation to Africa that a more’sociological’ or’cultural’ approach should be taken. One approach to the history of photography, pioneered by scholars like Geoffrey Batchen and Elizabeth Edwards, takes all of photographic production within its scope (science, medical, vernacular, photojournalism, art, conceptual). In contrast, a more traditional art historical approach focuses on specifically art-oriented aesthetic developments in the history of photography, and seeks even to reduce photography’s 19th century history to a discourse on aesthetic terms. Thus it might be useful for scholars and curators of African photography who disagree over methodological approaches to recognize that a similar schism exists within the history of Western photography, and that to turn an anthropological lens on Western photography is needed as well; one useful example is the sociological study by Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Stanford, 1996). (3)
African art scholarship in the US, like scholarship on African photography, also has traditionally dealt with the field of’visual culture’, as the Western definition of museum-oriented art did not apply to the objects or rituals produced in African precolonial societies. The American preference for precolonial traditions and antiquated notions of’authenticity,’ which were originally constructed by Western scholarship in the first place, held scholars back from investigating modern and contemporary art movements as well as photography, video and film. (4) Susan Vogel’s exhibition at the Center for African Arts in New York, Africa Explores:20th Century African Art (1991) was the first major US show to garner a good deal of critical attention, although there had been several earlier precedents (Contemporary African Arts, Field Museum, 1974; Contemporary African Art, Howard University 1977; and Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition, Studio Museum in Harlem, 1990) that received less attention. Thus a’visual culture’ approach to the history of photography in Africa dovetails with the methodological approaches of scholars trained both in precolonial African arts and of some photo historians.
But what of art photography, made for a mostly Western art market, that engages with specific concerns central to Western, international notions of art and aesthetics? While it is a relatively new genre in much of Africa, it is one that is quickly gaining interest, especially in urban areas where an education in photography is available. Is it possible, in scholarship or in exhibitions, to combine the aesthetic with the commercial, the artistic with the social? Eliding these boundaries is certainly what Enwezor suggested by labeling Keïta a modernist master, in the vein of the German portraitist August Sander. The truth is that photography as a field is far messier than such neat divisions would have us believe. Almost all’art’ photographers have made commercial work, and many commercial photographers consider themselves skilled and creative in their fields.
Enwezor approached contemporary photography as a mélange of practices in Snap Judgments, including fashion photography and documentary (but not commercial) portraiture among works that were more artistically-oriented. At the same time, that show’s mission was specifically to move away from the prevalence of interest in commercial studio portraiture in Africa, thereby exposing American audiences to other forms and genres of work. In the long run, while some portrait photographers on the continent will be recognized as brilliant practitioners, most will be appreciated for their role in their communities’ histories, just as most commercial Western portraitists are not considered great artists. Bodies of medical and scientific and anthropological photographs will be discovered, as well as important documentary archives belonging to news agencies. The field must remain open to methodological approaches and to new discoveries, for there is much more scholarship needed, and so many gaps in our knowledge. The fields of visual culture and art should not cut themselves off from each other and become engaged in petty and divisive arguments. A debated field is a good one, but bitter criticisms are unnecessary and serve to scare scholars from engaging in the field for fear of being attacked. Enwezor’s pioneering work has been absolutely essential to the field of African photography, and his influence cannot be under-acknowledged.
In the US, the path of academic scholarship on African photography has largely been pursued through African art and anthropology departments, rather than by historians of photography. New approaches to the history of photography, emphasizing cultural studies and viewing the whole of photography as’visual culture,’ in contrast to the minority of photographs which are meant to constitute’art,’ has meant that scholars in the history of photography come to African photographies with a wide disciplinary scope. African art scholars tend to be less appreciative of contemporary art while curators tend to be less interested in photographic production that does not fall into the aesthetic and conceptual standards dictated by the global art market. On the other hand, photography historians tend to lack the interdisciplinary cultural knowledge of Africa that should inform the analysis of any cultural production from a specific locale. Both African art and photography historians sometimes lack the knowledge of contemporary art strategies that may impede their understanding of art photography shown on the global market.
By mapping out the different positions in scholarship and curatorship in the US, as I have tried to do above, it becomes clear that all approaches are needed, and that they can serve somewhat different functions: to exhibit contemporary photography is important in creating a new field; scholarship is important in documenting histories and generating broader theories. But mapping out scholarly and curatorial positions also outlines some of the conflicts that have occurred among scholars and curators – conflicts that should not force positions to harden into oppositional stances that refuse debate and shut down dialogue, but that can instead revitalize definitions and question boundaries and productively investigate the very nature of the field, thereby opening up unlimited possibilities for future scholarship.
As a scholar who worked on Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography (2006) at the International Center of Photography in New York, and who has researched and written on the Bamako Biennale in Mali, I will assert that the two exhibitions held very different outlooks and have had different functions. Snap Judgments was conceived by its curator, Okwui Enwezor, as a follow-up, decade-later response to In/Sight, African Photographers from 1940s to the Present (1996) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Unlike the Biennale, Snap Judgments was not a juried exhibition; it was a handpicked show with decisions on works made solely by Enwezor, on several short trips across Africa and Europe. Few of the artists were based in the US. Some were based in Europe, and some new photographers working on the African continent were exposed to the international market by Snap Judgments. Shown in the same city as In/Sight although at a different venue (it is worth noting that the ICP is making an important step by including African photography within the world history of photography), Snap Judgments was a singular exhibition, meant to provide a snap shot, as it were, of the state of contemporary photographic activity on the continent and in the diaspora.
As ICP’s adjunct curator, Enwezor went on to curate Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art two years later, thus showing his versatility in traversing subject matter as well as medium, and refusing to be stereotyped as solely a’contemporary African’ curator (he also curated Documenta 11, the Seville Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale, as well as the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale). The impact of Snap Judgments, in which South African artists constituted a strong presence, is of course difficult to measure, especially in Africa, but one main effect was to give certain artists more international and American exposure. The artist who has benefitted the most from Snap Judgments, it seems, was Nontsikelelo’Lolo’ Veleko, who subsequently was shown at Kyle Kauffman Gallery in New York in 2007, and has since been included in New York in Global Africa Project (2010-11) at the Museum of Modern Arts and Design. For the most part, the effect of Snap Judgments seemed to allow those artists who had established careers to become somewhat more established, and those who did not to gain a bit of recognition; but in general the show did not seem to dramatically affect artists’ careers.
While Snap Judgments’ effect may not have had a strong impact on most artists’ careers as of yet (such things take time and it is up to the artist to’take advantage,’ as it were, of being shown internationally), it must be stated that furthering artists’ careers was not Enwezor’s curatorial intent. We must move away from an artist-centric view to understand the goals of a curator, which can be ambivalent toward artists, since curators function today much as art critics did in the past – curators now determine a canon as well as show new work. For that reason, a curator cannot, and should not, be overly concerned with an artist’s career. What Enwezor succeeded in doing was exposing a public to work from Africa that went far beyond the portrait tradition – established in the public perception by In/Sight (although there was a wider variety of work in that show than is usually recalled) – and thus creating a vaster exposure to African photography than previously had existed for an American public.
At the same time, many works in Snap Judgments utilized the very style of global conceptualism that is neither popular nor prevalent among most practitioners in Africa, and thus gives a different’snapshot’ of the type of work that is being made from a broader, visual culture perspective. The truth is that’art photography’ is a relatively new genre for most of the continent, but even before’art photography’ was available in many places as a conceptual option, practitioners like Samuel Fosso of Democratic Republic of Congo and Youssouf Sogodogo of Mali, among others, made creative and inarguably artistic photographs on their own, despite lacking a’culture’ of art photography to support their inspirations.
In contrast to Snap Judgments, which had the straightforward task of publicizing new developments on the continent and in the diaspora, the underlying mission of the Bamako Encounters or Bamako Biennale has been more politically and socially loaded, as well as more significant to Africa, because it is a biannual exhibition held on the continent. The Biennale was meant to foster, and to some extent has fostered, interest in and opportunity for making art photography across the continent. Founded by French photographers and supported by the French government, the Biennale went through a series of iterations while building a constituency of participants – artists, curators, scholars, gallerists. The 1998 Biennale seems to have had the most Malian agency: even the title, Ja Taa! « Prendre l’image », was in Bamanankan, Mali’s lingua franca, as well as in French. After curator Simon Njami assumed stewardship as chief curator from 2001-2007, the Biennale became effective in terms of generating some global artworld interest. Njami has said that he remained chief curator because he wanted the event to gain enough publicity to remain a viable institution after he left. (5) While tensions usually exist in Biennales between the national and the international, obviously the fact that the French continue to fund the Biennale and produce its catalogs means that local tensions are stronger than elsewhere. At the moment when Malians are asserting their desire to have control over aspects of the Biennale, and to use this exhibition as a force for change, CulturesFrance (now l’Institut français) has turned its interest toward founding a contemporary biennale in Benin. The first edition, Regard Bénin, occurred in the summer of 2010. But certainly the Bamako Biennale is gaining more exposure as a significant photography event, and hopefully will continue to be an impressive gathering for decades to come.
Locally, what has happened in Bamako as a result of the Biennale has been spectacular. Photography schools have sprouted, and a special school for women’s photography [Promo-femme : Centre de formation en audiovisuel pour les jeunes filles ] now unfortunately closed due to lack of government support, was for the duration of its existence hugely influential in allowing women to enter the field of photography, a formerly all-male profession. When I interviewed photographers in Mali in the summer of 2006, there were a few complaints about how the French handle the Biennale but certainly no one wished that it had not been invented, or thought it should end. It gave Malian photographers who were well-versed in portraiture and reportage the opportunity to explore self-expression and creative photography in ways previously unavailable. While Njami was hopeful that curators for the Biennale could be found from among the ranks of continent-based curators, that has not happened yet.
Njami’s own recent effort, A Useful Dream: African Photography 1960-2010, shown in Brussels at BOZAR (2010), displays a number of artists familiar to the circuit of African photography exhibits mentioned above, as well as some photographers new to this lexicon. A Useful Dream continues Njami’s project to display work from Africa, enabling a European- based audience to view these works, while reminding us that an inexhaustible number of photographs still wait to show us their visions of the continent’s past and present, with its future soon to be duly recorded and imagined in ever more varied forms.
1. What I mean by « global conceptualism » is how prevalent the inclusion of a conceptual approach to art has become in international art exhibitions and on the global market. All new media are seen as conceptual, and traditional media such as painting or photography must now also have a conceptual aspect or risk seeming redundant.
2. See Snap Me One! Studiofotografen in Afrika, edited by Heike Behrend and Tobias Wendl (Munich: Münchner Stadtmuseum and Prestel, 1998). See also Behrend, « Photo Magic: Photographs in Practices of Healing and Harming in East Africa » Journal of Religion in Africa 33 no. 2 (2003): 129-145 ; « Feeling Global’ The Likoni Ferry Photographers of Mombasa, Kenya » African Arts vol. 33 no. 3 (Autumn 2001): 70-77, 96 ; « Fragmented Visions: Photo Collages by Two Ugandan Photographers » Visual Anthropology vol. 14 no. 3 (2001): 301- 320 ; « Love à la Hollywood and Bombay: Kenyan Postcolonial Studio Photography » Paideuma vol. 44 (1998): 139-153. See also Behrend and Jean-François Werner, guest eds. « Photographies and Modernities in Africa », Visual Anthropology vol. 14 no. 3 (2001). See Tobias Wendl, « Entangled Traditions: Photography and the History of Media in Southern Ghana » in RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics vol. 39 (Spring 2001): 78-100. See Christraud Geary, In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960. Washington, D.C. & London: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution & Philip Wilson, Publishers, 2002 ; Images from Bamum: German Colonial Photography at the Court of King Njoya. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988 ; « Early Images from Benin at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. » African Arts vol. 30 (Summer 1997): 44-53.
3. See Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography (Abbeville Press, 1984); Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography (Konemann, 1999) and Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (Prentice Hall, 2002). For Batchen, see « Vernacular Photographies » in History of Photography vol. 24 no. 2 (Summer 2000); see also Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Photography Writing History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006) and also Batchen, Yoshiaki Kai and Masashi Kohara, Suspending Time – life – photography – death (Nagaizumi-cho, Shizuoka: Izu Photo Museum, 2010).
4. See Sidney Kasfir, « African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow » in Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, eds. Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999): 88-113 and a special issue of African Arts, vol. 9 no. 3 (Los Angeles, 1976) dedicated to the issue of authenticity.
5. Communicated in a personal interview, July 2010, Paris.///Article N° : 11109