“Africa” is a frustrating category in art: Cramming the continent into a box is a colonial bias that occludes the creative diversity of 54 countries in favor of whatever narrative-du-jour pleases the market. But it can also offer a platform for critique and counter-programming. In New York, two current shows that center on photography effectively evade stereotypes while offering fresh insight on lives and histories. They present nine artists in early to mid-career who go beyond the market-sanctioned canon of African photography (think studio photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé or documentary photos of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa). Instead these younger artists — all born between 1972 and 1990 — queer the pitch through their concepts and technique.
Take Saïdou Dicko, who grew up in Burkina Faso, has worked in Dakar and Paris, and is one of four artists in “The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture From Africa” at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. There is nothing conventionally “African” about Dicko’s arresting images of shadows silhouetted on walls and other street backdrops that seem chosen for their vivid blue, green, red, and ocher colors, except perhaps the suggested physiognomies of the subjects. The dozen works here are from a 2007 series titled “Le Voleur d’Ombres” (The Thief of Shadows); they are portraits of an indirect sort, since they tell us nothing about their subjects, while all the texture is in the setting. The effect is poignant, but not oppressive — the anonymity Dicko grants his subjects also brings a kind of autonomy.
The 2006 series “Mémoire” (Memory), by Sammy Baloji, is more explicit. Baloji comes from Katanga, the mineral-rich southern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here he takes images from the Belgian colonial archives, some of forced laborers in striped uniforms and chains, and layers them onto photographs of Katanga’s decimated current landscape, with its strip mines, railroad sidings, and massive industrial equipment. There is social comment too in George Osodi’s ironically titled “Oil Rich Niger Delta” pieces: The region is indeed the source of Nigeria’s oil wealth, but with it has come the environmental devastation that these images capture in all its acrid filth.
The idea that African photography is the antidote to the colonial or Western gaze is a well-intentioned idea, but doesn’t do service to the agency of African artists.
“The Expanded Subject” wants to move past the idea that African photography is the antidote to the colonial or Western gaze. “That’s a well-intended idea, but it doesn’t do service to the agency of African artists,” says co-curator Joshua I. Cohen, an art historian. The show rejects the impulse to assign to African photographers the task of authenticity: In Africa as elsewhere, photographers manipulate, interpret, apply technique. In his “Chambres Maliennes” (Malian Rooms) series, Mohamed Camara stages subjects inside a room, theatrically, or seen outside from its window, as if caught by accident, with wry captions that convey small frustrations of daily life. His “Souvenirs” (Memories) are photos of photos: Each image includes, somewhere in the composition, a plastic sachet filled with water — the kind one might buy from a roadside hawker — in which a snapshot portrait is slowly decaying.
Souvenirs Mohamed Camara/Galerie Pierre Brullé
A handsome show, “The Expanded Subject” is freighted with its formal agenda, which results in an awkward opening gallery that seeks to set up the history of African portraiture through a smattering of representative works. The show also regrettably lacks women artists. “Recent Histories: New Photography From Africa,” at Walther Project Space in Chelsea, a smaller, looser show, helps correct the gender imbalance. It also extends the field to video. The six short films in “Table Manners,” by Zina Saro-Wiwa, each depict an individual in Ogoniland, southern Nigeria, eating a local meal. The subjects are named and aware: They glance up, even stare back, then revert to the intimate and fundamental task at hand. We hear their chewing noises, along with voices from the surroundings and birds chirping.
Two Johannesburg-based photographers, Simon Gush and Lebohang Kganye, offer contemplative pieces. Kganye mines family albums and stages herself in the garb and pose of her mother, sometimes layering herself onto the original in an act of ghostly filiation. Gush shoots black-and-white photos and video, with a predilection for open, empty spaces, and augments them with text. A visit to a barren industrial town becomes occasion for a meditation on society’s obsession with work, and its costs.
Dawit Petros/Tiwani Contemporary
There’s an eerie sense of locale, too, in Délio Jasse’s “Terreno Ocupado,” a set of 24 cyanotype images of Luanda, Angola’s capital. The blue tone and rough paper create distance, suggesting less a documentary eye on the city than one of a pensive, slightly anxious flâneur. Three images by Eritrean-born Dawit Petros, by contrast, are stark and sharp. Each shows a figure in a landscape carrying a mirror that blocks his face. Two, set on a beach, trigger allusions to the fate of migrants in the Mediterranean. If that produces some unease, it’s a healthy feeling: In African contemporary art as in any other, these exhibitions remind us, experiment can be the surest path to viewer implication.