“The View from Here”, a unique exhibition presenting seven photographers from Africa and its diaspora, is being showcased at London’s Tiwani Contemporary gallery this month. Juliet Highet previews what’s on offer.
Photography is a hot medium in Africa, democratic, portable and capable of infinite creative and technical manipulation and experiment. Some are exploring the medium in startling, unique ways, covering often controversial subjects of public concern today, questioning official narratives, and often proposing alternatives to photography’s perceived status as purely documentary.
Others are using it as a cathartic tool, delving into memory, tensions between past and present, emotions such as loss and displacement, and personal reactions to collective history in visual form. All are pushing the boundaries of the medium, reacting to the extraordinary changes around them, such as the tsunami of urbanisation and religious fundamentalism.
Lagos-born Andrew Esiebo taught himself photography, and is now an award-winner, with a career attracting international recognition. His career started by chronicling the breakneck speed of urbanisation in his country, as well as its rich contemporary culture and heritage. Latterly he’s been exploring fresh creative territory, integrating multi-media practice, and investigating with his lenses themes that include gender politics, HIV/Aids, migration, Lagos nightlife and popular culture, such as football and Nollywood. Eyes from South to West explores the experiences of people who migrated from Nigeria to Europe. An ongoing project, which includes audio interviews, it reveals tensions between the dreams of starting a new life and the realities experienced in an alien world.
He also focuses on “popular” themes such as Lagos nightlife – photo series on the Afrika Shrine and the lives of bouncers spring to mind. God is Alive explores the recent phenomenal rise of Pentecostal and evangelical churches in Nigeria, with their vast gatherings known as ‘crusades’. Many of Esiebo’s photo series have a positive note – showing people overcoming adversity.
In Living Positive he celebrates Thoko Ngubeni, an HIV-positive South African lesbian, who was rejected by family and friends but has turned her life around. Esiebo follows her into townships where she has founded women’s support groups, organised public meetings to educate people on HIV/Aids issues and combat the stigma associated with them, and promoted the provision of testing and medication, to make a better life for herself and others.
Abraham Onoriode Oghobase, also Lagos-born, captures a sense of freedom from a “Lagosian state of mind”, the sense as he puts it, of being “overwhelmed”, “suffocated” by a large city. He says of Ecstatic: “How does one exhale in a demanding and constrictive city where millions of people struggle not just for physical space but also a mental anchor point? In performing and photographing Ecstatic, I make my way to the top of vehicles around my neighbourhood in Lagos only to take a rapturous leap… This unique space forming as my body curves through the air allows me to agonise, scream, exhale and at the same time empathise with other Lagosians like me in the daily struggle to exist.”
In this way, Oghobase combines art and performance, his body interacting with its surroundings, as he photographs it.
Some of the most groundbreaking and creative photographers today live and work in South Africa. Lebonang Kganye’s work Her-story/Heir-story traces her ancestral roots by drawing on stories of generations of her matrilineal family that were narrated to her by her grandmother. She says: “While the project documents my personal history, it also resonates with the history of South Africa, in that my family was uprooted and resettled because of apartheid laws and the amendment of land acts. We moved from place to place, creating temporary homes… This had a direct impact on the identity of my family, which resulted in our surname being changed.” Kganye’s photographic journey is a deep response to loss and mourning, not just for her family, but reflecting nation-wide loss of history, language and oral culture.
Her project layers family photographs, Drum magazine images and other aspects of popular culture. She also used “digital photomontages in which I juxtaposed old photos of my mother with ones of a present version – me, to reconstitute a new story and commonality… It made me consider her outside of just ‘motherland’, but like the beautiful women in Drum. This project connects three generations of my family.”
Of dual ancestry, Namsa Lemba is half-Swiss and half-Guinean. Her images revolve around subject-matter that is “normal” in one culture and viewed as “the other” by the West. The duality is perpetuated by her photographic style that veers between documentary and highly staged. For instance, she art-directs much of her work, using Guinean models, who wear a curious combination of local cloth and fetish objects along with stiletto heels. Some of the photographs in two of her series, Ya Kala Ben and The African Queens, hovering between fashion and fantasy anthropology, are shot in a studio complete with potted plants.
Délio Jasse was born and raised in Luanda, Angola, moving to Portugal when he was 18. Throughout his production, his focus has been on present-day Luanda, burdened with its imperial past, the ruins of the Portuguese empire, with its chaotic debris, grand but decrepit old buildings, many of them abandoned. But he doesn’t just gaze on the past in melancholy fashion; he celebrates the lives of the survivors, living in or among the ruins.
Born in Eritrea, raised in Kenya and Canada, Dawit L. Petros is now based in New York, and has travelled extensively round the US and also in Ethiopia. His primary theme is of displacement, and how to deal with it. He does so in his work by referencing African history, combining it with Western abstraction, marrying his East African experience with his current Diasporan one. His installations draw on his first language, Tigrinya. He questions whether geography defines people, or if they define a place, exploring landscape as a metaphor for identity.
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok is another photographer who focuses on displacement, and therefore loss and identity. Kenyan-born, she spent much time in South Africa; her experiences have engendered an intimate, very personal body of work centred on the issue of home. “Photography is a strange phenomenon,” she says. “You trust your eye and you cannot help but bare your soul.” A solo show titled I am Home explores the experience of African immigrants living in South Africa.
It seems like African photography has everything to offer!