“In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present”

Photography brings us news of appearances, always; of events, often; and of personal approaches, sometimes. When considering “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present,” at the Guggenheim, I was greeted by a spectrum of familiar genres with unexpected points of view. Instead of having to look from the “outside” at African subjects, a viewer was given perspectives from within their diverse cultures—and such interior horizons offered news to a Western public. Though some of its exhibitors have been shown in France and England, “In/sight” broke ground here, offering practically all its subjects a U.S. debut. (An exception is the South African Peter Magubane, whose activist photojournalism on apartheid has had worldwide impact.) The show included (among other rich materials) straight studio portraitists in Senegal (1940s and 1950s), moody reportage from Mozambique (1960s), reflections by a Central African on his identity in various roles (1970s), allegorical studies of black males by a Nigerian who died of AIDS (1980s), and an installation of colonialist photo imagery by another Nigerian, who lives in New York (1990s).

Younger African photographers living abroad tend to do mainstream avant-garde work—political montage, say, or conceptual narrative. They stake out two kinds of cultural authority: one is a social critique typical of postindustrial intelligentsias, and the other is their native origin (to which they might refer, across a divide). But I was drawn more to the photography of their elders, who didn’t know about cultural authority, and had to figure out how to make a living within a local market—sometimes even to invent that market themselves.

“In/sight” was striking, above all, as a gallery of faces. Take, as an example, close-up portraits of rural Senufo people by Cornelius Yao Azaglo Augustt, in 1964. As he looks at them, mostly from a three-quarter view, his sitters peer back at the camera with an appraising eye. The light is natural, the background plain canvas, stretched, sometimes buckled. Though the pictures have a certain improvised air, the subjects convey a presence of great solidity and soul. That such images were done as ID pictures (for voting purposes) comes as a shock, because they don’t resemble their formulaic, impassive counterparts in the U.S. The work shows the first contact of these men with the camera, in a new country, Côte d’Ivoire. Neither of the parties in this portrait ritual knew enough about the genre’s bureaucratic requirements to deaden it.

If this show was evidence, the magnetic fields of outside pictorial influence are strongest at the top and bottom of the African continent, weaker in the middle. Tunisian and Moroccan photographers have gravitated to Paris while South African ones, such as those with the periodical Drum, have related to Anglo news pictorials. In practical terms, a liaison with Western modes stabilizes African photographers even when they’re involved with ambiguous atmosphere. Working in Johannesburg (1987), Santu Mofokeng evokes a desolation and ennui that would make many sensitive Americans feel right at home. But for him, as he said, his pictures are emotional testimony of a sadness the new democracy has a “desire to forget.” He goes on: “The ‘us and them’ [whites] paradigm that informed my photography in the past has given way to an awkward ‘we,’ a fetus of doubtful pedigree.”

African photographers may well be aligned with Western image culture at the geographical extremes of their continent, but their relation to such culture was also polarized at the temporal extremes of the show. Fifty years ago, the Africans had yet to develop their own idioms, and worked slowly, away from Western models; today many of them are competitively aswim within international currents. In the ’40s there was Meissa Gaye and by the ’50s Salla Casset, two Senegalese, French-trained studio portraitists. However his pictures of French West African soldiers may have been visualized, Gaye’s commercial portraits from Dakar display a fascinating uncertainty. Their phrasing has still something of the ethnographic about it, but is also more relaxed. One deckle-edged picture shows three prettily dressed women, reclining. For all the tension in their posed body language, it’s clear they’re seen as individuals, not types; clear, too, that the photo is a talisman of their social moment, not a postcard. As for Salla Casset, he ventured into the portrayal of different moods—pensiveness, for example, or flirtation searching to give his sitters a social poise whether they are in native or, less comfortably, in Western dress. But he didn’t know how to make a slick impression. So the formality of his arrangements contrasts with the amiable, unsorted acting styles of his customers.

In regional portraiture for a local clientele, community status normally takes precedence over personal psychology. Fixed status yields a fairly undifferentiated flow of social traits. But in certain ’60s and ’70s African milieus, an urban bourgeoisie begins to have its picture taken, with mixed results. You can see in Malick Sidibé’s photos of young swimmers at the beach of the Niger River near Bamako, (Mali), the leisure activities of a class that appears to be moving from a communal order to a civic one. It’s an internally progressive context, in which both photographer and subjects loosen up in a self-conscious way, producing a narrative about their own lifestyle, as if they were a little outside of it themselves. One theme of that life suggested by Sidibé’s few pictures included here is the war of the sexes—that is to say, modern romance. If African photographers started to evoke interpersonal relationships between members of a group, rather than the ethnic self-image of the group itself (though embodied by individuals), that passage implies a turning point in the politics of their own identity. It might be fair to say that (in a most troubled history, off-stage in this show), the desire to retain an older social condition mingled with a need to pass to something freer beyond it. That phase had already been anticipated by Seydou Keita’s portrait work of the ’50s, and it is a moving, as well as an entertaining experience to see how such a dual consciousness is articulated in terms of style, costume, and decor.

This photographer from Mali stretched his own patterned cloth backdrops behind his subjects, encouraged people to dress up with loud patterns of their own, provided props such as his own car or a fountain pen, and then attended to characterization with a sharp, surprised eye, under a crystalline, natural light. When I first saw Keita’s work, in Paris, a few years ago, I supposed him to be a lively regionalist. In the context of “In/sight,” I imagined him as a key to understanding what happened in postwar African photography. Gathered into the poise of his portrait moments is an interplay between ceremony and spontaneity, a product that might well have been encouraged by his charm as a person. Some of his sitters hold hands with their companions or relatives; with the same gravity, others display a flower or sprig. And the smile that plays over so many of these faces seems, in retrospect, a response to the one who wanted to see them at their best, and also a feature in the excellence of the picture. In one sense these are fashion portraits, loaded with insignia; but in another they’re compositions elaborated not only with points of information but with an eye-catching complexity, an accumulation of one thing upon another, the fondest memory of native arts. Keita might well have remained content to illustrate those decorative and symbolic arts, as exemplified by dress. But he went further in his embodiment of them through design within the realist medium of photography. It was a delicate occasion. In it is blended the shy researches of his predecessors with a glimpse of the conceptualism of the future, both contained but lightly in the pleasure of the moment.

Max Kozloff is a writer and photographer living in New York.