Akinbode Akinbiyi, Lagos Island, Lagos, 2004, ink-jet print, 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Lagos Island, Lagos, 2004, ink-jet print, 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Akinbode Akinbiyi

It would be easy to peg Akinbode Akinbiyi as a street photographer in the classic mold. Though the label is to some degree apt, the astringent lyricism of the artist’s images is more than just a product of his evident immersion in the scenes where they are produced, whether these are in African cultural capitals such as Bamako, Johannesburg, or Lagos, or in Berlin, where he has been based since the 1970s. As he once explained to fellow photographer Rahima Gambo, “It is not the environment that determines the approach, but rather how you stand in relation to yourself and what you want to say, to see, to create.” Instead of primarily serving as a documentarian, he is above all—as suggested by the subtitle of his recent exhibition, “Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air”—a bard of daily life, catching and amplifying the unseen vibrations of things. Through Akinbiyi’s lens, diverse and mobile realities unexpectedly meet to form constellations that could only appear to the attentive eye of an equally mobile observer who happened to put himself in a particular vantage point at the right time. The pictures’ often unstable, off-kilter compositions testify to the fleeting, evanescent nature of the perceptions they record.

The exhibition includes five series of images, most of which have gradually accumulated over decades and are still ongoing. In the galleries of the Gropius Bau, the black-and-white photographs (whether hung individually, as diptychs, or in grids of anywhere from four to a dozen images) are exhibited without labels, firmly directing viewers’ attention away from the particulars of date or place and toward the ramifying interconnections of viewpoint, mood, and theme—the subjective as well as the objective associations through which the series take form. The longest running and perhaps also the most encompassing of the series is “Photography, Tobacco, Sweets, Condoms and Other Configurations,” 1970s–. What’s most vivid in these images is the pressure on the streetscape of a plethora of insistent, message-oriented images, often highly sexualized—the city as it’s been conquered by advertising, in which photographically reproduced bodies and faces seem to crowd out those of the living and breathing inhabitants. By contrast, “Sea Never Dry,” 1980s–, whose images were made on beaches in Africa and Europe, shows environments partly sheltered from the onslaught of image-based messaging. Here, tellingly, individual and collective activity comes to the fore, as it does not in the other series, in which cities themselves rather than their inhabitants seem to be the main protagonists. The shifting backgrounds of water, sand, and often jerry-built constructions serve—as the exhibition’s curator, Natasha Ginwala, has noted—to conjure “a meeting place and temporary dwelling where the cosmopolitan spirit of cities is rejuvenated.”

“African Quarter,” 1990s–, focuses more specifically on Akinbiyi’s adopted hometown of Berlin and particularly (but not exclusively) on the neighborhood of Wedding, one of the poorest in the city as well as one of the most ethnically mixed. Oddly enough, many immigrants from Africa have settled in the section of Wedding known as the Afrikanisches Viertel (African Quarter), whose streets are named after places and people involved in the nineteenth-century German colonization of the continent. In one unpeopled image, a street sign puts us at the intersection of Usambarastraße (named for a mountain range in Tanzania) and Witbooi-Allee, a section of the controversially named Petersallee that was unofficially rechristened to honor a tribal leader, who fought the Germans and was killed in battle in 1905 in what is now Namibia. But all this information merely floats somewhere in the background; in these photographs, as in much of Akinbiyi’s work, everyday life in the present unfolds with its own sleepwalking logic, half unconscious of the histories that have nonetheless conditioned it.