New York

Daniele Tamagni, Willy Covary, 2008, color photograph, 26 x 35 3/8".

Daniele Tamagni, Willy Covary, 2008, color photograph, 26 x 35 3/8".

Daniele Tamagni/“Africolor”

Daniele Tamagni, Willy Covary, 2008, color photograph, 26 x 35 3/8".

The man in the pink suit: That sounds like the name of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness, and indeed, in suitably English style, to go with his suit the man wears a bowler, though it’s bright red. Accessories include a patterned tie and a perfectly horizontal tie clip over a crisp pale-pink shirt. Yet the effect of the overall ensemble is less neat than fabulously extravagant, the kinks in the costume’s signifiers reinforced by the fact that its wearer is black-skinned, and by the clamp of his teeth around a very fat cigar. He seems more tycoon than British gentry, but is he? He is, in fact, a resident of Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo, where he is striding down a rather raggedy street. Ealing comedy begins to shift, for me a little uneasily, into Graham Greene.

Willy Covary, the subject of this 2008 photo, is a member of a group called the SAPE, the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, aka the Society of Ambiance Creators and Elegant People. Based in Brazzaville, with émigré outposts abroad, the SAPE makes its core principle sartorial splendor, dressing in clothes that have inspired a collection by the British fashion designer Paul Smith and are documented in a group of photographs by Daniele Tamagni, which formed one of this pair of twinned shows. As their all-male subjects adopt poses from that of elder to gangsta, unified chiefly by the quality of their tailoring, the photos fascinate, but also frustrate: There is much here to know, and that the images don’t explain. How to understand this phenomenon—as a brave assertion of style (that is, of unimpeachable identity)within a poor and troubled state? Or perhaps as a regressive kind of conservatism, an identification with Europe and its former colonial powers as epitomized in this case by England. “British people are very elegant, and they are advanced in all aspects of life compared to other countries,” one sapeur remarks in a 2009 book of Tamagni’s photos, revealing mainly that England is as remote from him as the Congo is from me.

That issue of intercontinental fantasy, the confected dream of the elsewhere that seems to pervade the SAPE, reappeared in places in “Africolor,” the second show in the space. Promising some kind of study of African color, or of African color photography, this was actually a heterogeneous set of pictures, not all shot in Africa, not even all in color. They were also widely varied in intention, ranging from the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s now-canonical portraits, these made between the late 1960s and early ’80s; to fashion-magazine photos by the Englishman Martin Parr; to documentation of a large-scale, outdoor photographic installation in Kenya by the French artist JR, Women Are Heroes, 2008, which constitutes a form of social activism. Together the group could hardly advance a real thesis, but there wasn’t an individual image that didn’t repay attention.

For one example, the show included a pair of works by the New York artist Mickalene Thomas, whose photographs—each setting a single model on a couch, in a space that is cued as a sitting room but is more likely the artist’s studio—were startling for their tense combinations of areas of pattern. As she often does, Thomas filled these pictures with furniture and clothing fabrics printed with checks, dots, florals, grids, scrolls, and much else. In parts of Africa, such fabrics are traditional in women’s clothing (seen, in fact, in a few of Sidibé’s pictures here), as Thomas surely knows. But she presumably also knows, as admirers of the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare will have learned, that the tradition is a hybrid one, so stoked by European cotton mills that it can scarcely be described as indigenous. And Thomas’s pictures point in further directions. She herself cites Nollywood, the populist Nigerian film industry, but I also wonder whether she was thinking of Matisse, and particularly the Matisse of the Nice years—of those paintings of oriental odalisques, made in a series of hotel rooms and apartments that he turned into studios by filling them with the patterned fabrics that he loved all his life, producing rich fusions of fantasy, domesticity, and atelier artifice. As with Tamagni’s photos of the sapeurs, this kind of layered, impure projection may be the most immediate subject of “Africolor,” if not an entirely deliberate one.

David Frankel