New York

Hala Elkoussy, Peripheral Landscape #5, Al Warraq, 2004, ink-jet print on vinyl, dimensions variable.

Hala Elkoussy, Peripheral Landscape #5, Al Warraq, 2004, ink-jet print on vinyl, dimensions variable.

“Snap Judgments”

AFRICA AND PHOTOGRAPHY have a tangled history. Can the medium that has depicted Africa for the West since the moment of the camera’s invention, during the colonialism of the nineteenth century, escape this troubled past? The thesis of “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” was that this possibility exists not only in theory but in practice among contemporary African artists, who are all too often ignored beyond their homelands. In his impressive introduction to the catalogue, curator Okwui Enwezor states that Western photographic depictions have either aestheticized and exoticized Africa (he cites the work of Leni Riefenstahl and Peter Beard) or represented it as a place imprisoned in a never-ending cycle of famine and political mayhem. “Afro-pessimism” is Enwezor’s term for imagery of the last category, typified by Kevin Carter’s ghastly 1993 photograph of a starving Sudanese child stalked by a vulture (published in the New York Times). According to Enwezor, Afro-pessimistic pictures construct an Africa that is the West’s entropic double, deserving of charity and piteous regard, even as they mystify the West’s long-standing exploitation of the continent’s human and natural resources.

In a particularly withering passage, Enwezor describes how the singer Bob Geldof leveraged a B-list musical career into an A-list philanthropic one, and details the complicity of photography in Geldof’s self-transformation. (Angelina Jolie’s much-recorded “Lady Bountiful” tour of sub-Saharan villages, a bewildered Brad, Maddox, and Zahara in tow, is a new, grotesque twist on the phenomenon.) The star guest at the 2005 Live 8 Concert organized by Geldof was Birhan Woldu, a survivor of the 1984 Ethiopian famine and subject of yet another notorious newspaper photograph, in which she appeared near death in her mother’s arms; this image was dramatically projected onto a large screen during the concert in London’s Hyde Park. Suddenly, the actual Woldu emerged onstage, a well-nourished and well-groomed adult, as if recalled from the dead by the beneficent Sir Bob himself. Enwezor bristles at such exploitation, recounting his own childhood tenure in the refugee camps of Biafra at the end of the 1960s: “I count myself lucky [not only] to have survived the harrowing experience but also to have escaped from the picturesque capture of the news reporter’s autistic lens.”

He proposes a second mode of depiction as an antidote to the first—an African photography produced by Africans. In the exhibition “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present,” shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996, Enwezor and colleagues Clare Bell, Danielle Tilkin, and Octavio Zaya presented an entire tradition of African portrait and documentary imagery that had until then been little known in the West: the work of Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Samuel Fosso, and David Goldblatt, among others. It is Enwezor’s claim that the photographs by these artists and the younger generations of photographers featured in “Snap Judgments” escape Afro-pessimism by affording a far more complex view than the sensationalist Western photojournalist seeks.

In her catalogue text, assistant curator Vanessa Rocco describes “Snap Judgments” as a sequel to the revelatory Guggenheim show. The contemporary African work by thirty-five artists featured at the ICP differs considerably from that of the prior generation both in form and content. Much of it is shot with a digital camera and digitally manipulated; a good portion is polychromatic and self-consciously staged. Where modernist photographers countered the ethnographic image of themselves through portraiture, contemporary artists extend this self-representation with pictures of individuals in their social environments. Most of the photography in the exhibition was unabashedly documentary, following the examples of Keïta and Goldblatt, if rarely as powerful. A different rhetorical mode was proposed by Tracey Rose’s campy biblical scenes, Mohamed Camara’s self-portraits in French Christmas tableaux, and Maha Maamoun’s fabricated images of Egyptian beaches and parks, in which photography’s effet du réel is subverted by a blatant narrativity. (Fosso is the godfather of this tendency.) This tension between a photography of fantasy and one of clear-eyed documentation was a major polarity of the exhibition and, it would seem, of contemporary African work in general.

The documentary picture’s dominance raises questions. As at the Enwezor-curated Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, the galleries of the ICP overflowed with images of poverty and social injustice. Certainly, a number of works, especially those depicting African cities—such as Jo Ractliffe’s pan shots of Johannesburg or Hala Elkoussy’s Dan Graham–like records of Cairene suburbs—were positively cool in tone. Yet consider Zohra Bensemra’s wrenching pictures of Algerian women caught in the middle of a horrific civil war, Guy Tillim’s chilling shots of Jo’burg housing projects, or Mikhael Subotsky’s extraordinary triptychs of South Africa’s Pollsmoor and Voorberg prisons (Subotsky’s mastery of wide-angle perspective is impressive for an artist who is all of twenty-four years of age): None of these works would be out of place in the pages of a Western newspaper. Much like the photojournalistic images that Enwezor rightly decries, the success of these pictures lies in their capacity to horrify and to elicit sympathy. Which returns us to the problem of Afro-pessimism: Can documentary images of Africa, however well-intentioned, entirely escape this viewpoint? What is the line between an ethical image and a pessimistic one? What are the criteria that distinguish one from the other? Is the Western photographer condemned to perpetuate Afro-pessimism? Can the African artist escape this simply by being African? Or is the “difference” one of formal intention—the difference between photojournalism and art photography? (Enwezor’s descriptions of Subotsky’s and Ractliffe’s rhetorical tactics suggest as much.) The supposition of a pan-African authenticity tied to locality underlies this thesis, holding in place the binary logic of Afro-pessimism itself, opposing Africa and the West as perpetual antagonists, even as globalism fosters postidentitarian models of subjectivity and aesthetic production.

Enwezor raises important issues; his reflection on the ethics of photographic representation is a significant intervention in the tradition of writers such as Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler, and Douglas Crimp. In addition to the theoretical positions it offered, “Snap Judgments” confirmed the seriousness and variety of photographic activity throughout the continent. Moving from Yto Barrada’s pictures of migrants in Tangier, to Romuald Hazoumé’s shots of indigent cyclists smuggling oil from Nigeria to Benin, to Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko’s portraits of sassy Johannesburg teenagers, the viewer began to perceive the extraordinary heterogeneity of African society—that there is no one “Africa.” Afro-pessimism is defeated in the cognizance of such difference.

James Meyer is an associate professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta, and a contributing editor of Artforum.