Art review: Contemporary African Photography

October 5, 2023

L-R Both images by Hassan Hajjaj. White Dotted Stance, 2002. From the series Vogue, The Arabe Issue. Photograph, digital C-print on paper, mounted on aluminium, and tomato tins © Hassan Hajjaj 2002/1423 AH. Courtesy of the artist. Rider in Pink, 2000. From the series Vogue, The Arabe Issue. Photograph, digital C-print on paper, mounted on aluminium, and tomato tins © Hassan Hajjaj, 2000/1421 AH. Courtesy of the Artist.

Anjola Fashawe and Georgia Wolfin review contemporary photography at the Tate Modern

We arrived bang on time at 7pm in the heart of south-east London and joined the animated queue, excited and eager to enter the iconic Tate Modern. We were getting a private view of contemporary African photography, which we had the privilege of experiencing thanks to Charlie Shepherd at the Guardian Foundation.

The Tate Modern, originally a power station, celebrated for its raw concrete and imposing structure, has undergone a transformation into a temple of contemporary art in 2000.

Inside these walls lies a world of vibrant imagination, where the lenses of 36 visionary artists have converged to create a breathtaking exhibition: ‘A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography’.

Here, photography is the bridge connecting us to the intricate web of narratives woven across the vast African continent. The versatility of this exhibition is truly remarkable; it touches upon pressing global issues like climate change while delving deep into the nuances of each African country’s individual situation.

Each photograph acts as a portal to a different world, from Nigeria’s regal monarchy to the intimate embrace of an Algerian home

Highlights include Hassan Hajjaj’s, portraiture of local women posing iconically in his creations, Zina Saro-Wiwa’s film, set in Ogoniland, about her father’s execution for protesting against pollution and Nigerian artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s ‘Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman?’, a filmed performance piece of seven masked women dragging kegs of water strapped to their ankles through the streets of Lagos.

This captivating exhibition is divided into three powerful chapters— ‘Identity and Tradition’, ‘Counter Histories’, and ‘Imagined Futures’ — each photograph acts as a portal to a different world, from Nigeria’s regal monarchy to the intimate embrace of an Algerian home.

Cristina de Middel, Umfundi 2012. From the series The Afronauts. Photograph, inkjet print on paper. Tate. Purchased with funds provided by Hyundai Card 2018.

Anjola
As a British-Nigerian of Yoruba descent, my connection to my heritage feels constrained, being brought up in a Eurocentric culture. However, this exhibition was a revelation, drawing me closer to the diverse beauty of African cultures, including my own.

‘Afronauts’ by Cristina de Middel, hung in the ‘Imagined Futures’ chapter, left an indelible mark on me. Her work made me think about all the untold stories we fail to acknowledge, questioning who decides what we remember and what we forget. I was profoundly moved by her ability to challenge stereotypes on African history.

Delving into Western stereotypes of Africa, Middel unveils Zambia’s ambitious but ill-fated space program in 1964, shortly after gaining independence. Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher, embarked on training the first African crew for a moon mission. But with minimal funding, Nkoloso’s dream floundered, relegated to a footnote in post-colonial African history.

Through evocative portrayals of African astronauts, Middel masterfully blends fantasy with history. One photograph captures, see above, a boy seated beside a makeshift spaceship under a starry backdrop, eyes closed in a dreamlike state, yearning for a journey to the moon.

These photographs unveil to us a crucial yet often overlooked chapter of African history

I liked the way the crew members were portrayed in astronaut suits crafted from traditional material. Their faces appear concealed beneath dusty plastic helmets, shrouding their identities in ambiguity.

I was inspired to imagine that this symbolism invites all Africans to aspire to be ‘Afronauts’ or alternatively represents the crew’s unfulfilled dreams, accentuated by the makeshift feel of the helmets, immersed in a naturalistic ambiance.

Nkoloso humorously mentions crew distractions, including ‘lovemaking’ and a 17-year-old girl astronaut tending to her ’10 cats’. His unorthodox training methods, from rolling down hills to swinging from ropes, further underscored the mission’s eccentricity.

These photographs unveil to us a crucial yet often overlooked chapter of African history, illustrating the audacious dreams that once took flight and the complexities of pursuing them.

Andrew Esiebo, Mutations, 2015–2022. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary.

Georgia
Personally, I found myself drawn to the work of Andrew Esiebo, a Nigerian photographer whose Mutations series consists of four photographs of his hometown, Lagos. Each piece is vibrant and eye-catching while simultaneously poignant and challenging.

The Mutations series captures the constantly evolving landscape and architecture of West Africa’s most populous city. The photographs show an intriguing blend of sprawling urban metropolises and the informal systems stemming from Lagosians’ inventiveness and resilience in the face of rapid urbanisation.

In the words of Esiebo himself, “this body of work reflects the endless juxtapositions that exist in the city, between past and present, modernity and tradition.” For me, Esiebo’s presentation of these juxtapositions is flawlessly executed with prosaic greys and browns depicting the urbanisation, starkly contrasted with the bright shades of this unique culture.

A gathering of like-minded photojournalists seek to redefine the conversation about Africa and its place in the world

My personal favourite (see above bottom right) shows a lively assortment of coloured umbrellas at a market and bustling traffic, interspersed with dense crowds of people, set against a high-rise urban background, creating a beautiful hybrid landscape.

His photography lingers comfortably on the border between rich vibrancy and unembellished realism to project a clear and undeniable message. He neither glamourises nor demonises the process of urbanisation, it merely provides a background for the real focus of his work: the creativity and innovation of the Nigerian people.

The whole exhibition was more than just a display of art, it was a gathering of like-minded photojournalists seeking to redefine the conversation about Africa and its place in the world.

We highly recommend you see it for yourself. Check out details here.

Georgia is 18, from N-W London, and is currently studying English Literature, Sociology and Geography at Woodhouse college. She likes R&B, photography and learning languages.

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