Contemporary African Photography at the Tate straddles cultural, ethnic, and geographic diversities

BY Stephen Frailey, September 2, 2023

A photograph does not remain fixed in the past. In the unspooling present, it adheres to our thoughts, interpretations, and understanding, adapting its content depending on the information we bring to it and influencing our relationship to current image formation. Photographic meaning fluctuates, moving backward and forward, a chaperone into the future.  

The past and its aftermath loom in A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography, a capacious and eloquent survey whose achievement matches its ambition, straddling vast cultural, ethnic, and geographic diversities with nimble coherence. Divided into useful motifs – Identity and Tradition; Counterhistories; Imagined Futures – by Osei Bonsu, curator of international art at the Tate, the show brings together 37 artists from Africa and its diaspora. The exhibition, on view through January 14, 2024, argues that the “new” in cultural production is a response to and an excavation of what came before, a weave of individual autonomy and cultural legacy. In a cultural context in which the recent past may very well be traumatic, photography is a formidable tool. 

©Cristina de Middel, Butungakuna, 2012

Many themes and photographic processes that have enlivened photographic thinking in the last 30 years are in evidence here. The groundswell of self-portraiture (and the thinking that all meaningful photography is a form of self-portraiture) is immediately accounted for. Of particular significance are the self-portraits of Khadija Saye. Inspired by Gambian ritual, she is draped and masked with talismanic objects: cow horn, lemons, incense pots, and prayer beads. Saye’s In This Space We Breathe, 2017, is an incantation that addresses the ancestral past as well as the present, the invisible and visible. Her use of the collodion tintype bridges antiquarian processes with the technological present. The catalogue includes a text by Saye in which she posits her work process as a healing from “how trauma is embedded in the Black experience.” The deeply felt and unsettling resonance of the work – both fragile and resilient – is only compounded by the knowledge of the artist’s death, at age 24, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017.

Maïmouna Guerresi, M-eating – students and teacher, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim

The portrait as a performative and aspirational construction manifests in the African tradition of studio portraiture. Portraiture is a well-cited assertion of post-colonial identity and a relevant through-line of the exhibition, including photographs from the 1950s by Ghanian photographer James Barnor and work from the 1950s through the ‘70s by Lazhar Mansouri from Northern Algeria. Photographer Santu Mofokeng’s collection of 80 Victorian images by anonymous photographers from the early 20th century is a remarkable document of the Black South African bourgeois. Although lavish with Victorian bric-a-brac, the images form a valuable counter-narrative to the ethnographic souvenirs of white colonialists. Atong Atem is one of several photographers in the show – including George Osodi, Hassan Hajjaj, and Ruth Ginika Ossai – whose work references the community portrait studio. Atem’s 2015 portraits, in which friends and family posed in a studio festooned with riotously patterned fabric, clothing, and flowers braids together her South Sudanese heritage with the contemporary culture of Australia, where she lives, an homage to family and culture that is both festive and aristocratic. 

Sabelo Mlangeni engages an ordinary black-and-white vocabulary common to documentary projects to portray extraordinary lives in rural South Africa. Country Girls, 2003-2009, celebrates the casual visibility of the queer community east of Pretoria and the scruffy mischief and improvisational glamour that ignores material inequity. It is an exhilarating and flirtatious portrayal of community and a reassuring pursuit of happiness and joy in what has become a fraught and divisive present.

©Atong Atem, Adut and Bigoa, The Studio Series, 2015. Courtesy the artist and MARS Gallery

From Zimbabwe, as part of a sprawling practice of activism and filmmaking, Kudzanai Chiurai stages opulent theatrical tableaus of familiar Western and Christian totems under the banner We Live in Silence. Reminiscent of the work of Renee Cox and Carrie Mae Weems, these elaborate crucifixes, pietas, altarpieces, and other ceremonial and sacrificial scenes occur with Black female protagonists. Ethnographic photographs, those dusty colonial relics, form the background of some of the images. Throughout, emblems of European classicism are infiltrated as acts of resistance to the patriarchy and violence of colonialism. A striking enactment of Artemisia Gentileschi’s epochal painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1613, for example, amplifies the gendering of political struggle and martyrdom.

The photograph as an object, a continuing interest in much current photography, is keenly represented here by the work of Zohra Opoku and her panorama, screen-printed on a patchwork of hanging fabric. This mural-scaled textile work made of recycled bedsheets and tablecloths recalls the draping combines of Robert Rauschenberg and the image as a printed act of mechanical reproduction and drawing, a further sense of the physicality of the hand. In its depiction of family members arrayed in formation on a mound of disused fabric, garbed in cast-off t-shirts and their cast-off slogans, When We Were Kings and Queens, 2017, suggests textiles as a migratory commodity at the intersection of globalization and unequal exchange. The work recalls, too, other forms of art-world “upcycling” that convert the discarded into a valued asset, including the sculptural efforts of Jessica Stockholder and Richard Tuttle.

Edson Chagas, Tipo Passe, Pablo P. Mbela, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Apalazzo Gallery

The exhibition is informative and agile, and like all group exhibitions that enclose participants by place, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other demographic criteria – and like previous survey exhibitions of African photography at the Guggenheim Museum (In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present, 1996) and ICP (Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, 2006) by the beloved Okwui Enwezor, not to mention MoMA’s current New Photography show, of photographers affiliated with Lagos, Nigeria, on view through September 16 and reviewed in this issue – it encourages viewers to look forward to the inclusion of this work in surveys of their respective genres and in the broader cannon of contemporary practice.

©Ruth Ossai, Student nurses Alfrah, Adabesi, Odah, Uzoma, Abor and Aniagolum. Onitsha, Anambra state, Nigeria, 2018

A World in Common is a significant survey of the photograph in transition from a tool of oppression to one of empowerment and collaboration in the reclamation of a monumental civilization once aggressively displaced. Whatever inherent dilemmas (work from Egypt, Africa’s third most populous country, is excluded) arise for an exhibition that seeks to cull a dominant photographic practice from a continent of one and a half billion people – we are told that there are at least 75 different languages in Africa with more than one million speakers – the exhibition makes a compelling argument for photography as the unprecedented lingua franca, uniting not just the continent but the globe, sharing our common, and of equal necessity, our uncommon lives.