A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography Tate Modern – Revd Jonathan Evens

A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography

Several recent exhibitions exploring legacies of the past, including that of colonialism, in order to posit creative ways forward in the future, have been based on specific philosophical theories. With ‘In The Black Fantastic’ at the Hayward Gallery, Ekow Eshun used a definition of the fantastic created by the scholar Rosemary Jackson which “has to do with inverting elements of this world, re-combining its constitutive features in new relations to produce something strange, unfamiliar, and apparently ‘new,’ absolutely ‘other’ and different.” Eshun was interested in “collective memories, cultural and spiritual practices that artists and cultural figures are drawing on in expansive and generative ways, reaching back in time, as well as into the future, reaching towards myth, spiritual belief.”

‘Rites of Passage’ at the Gagosian Gallery explored the idea of “liminal space,” a coinage of anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957). In his 1909 book, after which the exhibition was titled, Van Gennep was among the first to observe that the transitional events of birth, puberty, marriage, and death are marked by ceremonies with a ritual function that transcends cultural boundaries. ‘Rites of Passage’ was structured in correspondence with liminality’s three stages: separation, transition, and return, while the artists in the exhibition were further grouped together according to themes of tradition, spirituality, and place. The exhibition examined the status of postcolonial Black identity, specifically the “triple consciousness” experienced by members of the African diaspora when encountering counterparts who identify with local majority populations.

Maïmouna Guerresi, M-eating – students and teacher, 2012 5 photographs, colour, lambda print, on paper mounted on aluminium; 1500 × 3880 mm Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim
Maïmouna Guerresi, M-eating – students and teacher, 2012 5 photographs, colour, lambda print, on paper mounted on aluminium; 1500 × 3880 mm Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim

‘A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography’ at Tate Modern draws on the theories of Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe (born 1957) by inviting us to imagine “a world in common”. To do this, Mbembe claims, we must “think the world from Africa”. ‘A World In Common’ explores Africa’s past, present and future to create a more expansive and inclusive narrative of humanity. It suggests that to conceive “a world in common” is to imagine a future of possibility. Unfolding across three chapters – Identity and Tradition, Counter Histories and Imagined Futures – the exhibition charts the dialogue between photography and contemporary perspectives on cultural heritage, spirituality, urbanisation, and climate change to reveal shared artistic visions that reclaim Africa’s histories and reimagine its place in the world.

Despite the synergies in exhibition themes, there is surprisingly little overlap between the artists featured in these three exhibitions suggesting a breadth, depth and vitality of expression in those engaging with these themes today.

Tate Modern’s contribution to these debates derives from the reality that, since its invention in the 19th century, photography has often been used as a colonial tool to construct the representation of African societies through a Eurocentric lens. The 150 images included, from 36 artists of different generations and geographies, challenge the dominant Eurocentric images of the continent by imagining alternative visions of Africa’s many histories, cultures and identities and examining legacies of the past while imagining more hopeful futures. Taking viewers along many landscapes, borders, and time zones, the exhibition gives us regal portraits of kings and queens with intimate scenes of family life and stark documentary images of post-industrial ruin. Ancient dynasties, which have survived periods of struggle and resistance, have played an important role in shaping spiritual and cultural identity. A shared sense of community and belonging connecting Africa and its global diaspora is reflected in family photo albums and stylishly composed studio portraits that form counter-histories, often inspired by Pan-African liberation movements. Scenes of devastated coastlines and otherworldly landscapes consider the growing impact of the climate emergency and globalisation, with artists imagining a shared future informed by common realities.

Artists such as George Osodi and Kudzanai Chiurai explore histories of anticolonial resistance and political revolt while paying tribute to the monarchs and matriarchs who resisted colonial violence and addressing the rich heritage of kingdoms such as the Asante of Ghana and the Yoruba of Nigeria, who are descended from the goddesses and gods of the ancient spiritual capital, Ilé-Ifẹ̀. As with ‘Rites of Passage’, the important role that the power of ritual plays in many African religions and spiritual practices also features here. Khadija Saye, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Maïmouna Guerresi look at the body, ceremony and devotion, examining ritual as a source of healing and a way to connect with communities near and far, real and imagined. The rites of passage and acts of remembrance they document or create offer portals between the living and their ancestors. They consider spirituality as a personal journey towards a shared humanity beyond cultural, religious and political borders. For centuries in African cultures, masks have been used to form relationships between individuals, communities, the environment and the cosmos. By putting on a mask, performers embody spirits during performances and ceremonies and enter a sacred realm between the living and ancestral worlds. In photographic works by Edson Chagas and Zina Saro-Wiwa, masks and the masquerade become a powerful medium for the activation of cultural memory and collective identity.

Khadija Saye summed up much of what we found in this first chapter when she wrote: “We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.” Her works reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma, which, for her, included the experience of racism in Britain.

In its second chapter, the exhibition explores the rise of studio photography across the continent during the 1950s and 60s – a time when many African nations gained independence. However, Africa’s rich studio culture began in the 1840s in many coastal cities. Photography studios gave communities greater agency over their appearance, and during the period of independence, they became joyous spaces for the projection and performance of new identities. Working within their local communities, pioneering photographers such as James Barnor in Ghana and Lazhar Mansouri in Algeria photographed families and individuals who would gather proudly to have their portraits taken, often for the first time. Further enhancing this rich history of self-expression and representation, artists such as Atong Atem, Sabelo Mlangeni and Ruth Ossai consider the contemporary relevance of family portraiture as a space of kinship and connection. Then, using maps, bank notes, photo albums, passports and postcards, artists such as Malala Andrialavidrazana and Délio Jasse privilege personal perspectives and challenge the official accounts of colonial administrations and nation-states. Their living archives introduce a new order of events in which suppressed narratives gain new currency.

Malala Andrialavidrazana states, “It is a shared global story. The world belongs to everyone”. Through her Figures series, she believes she can “give more perspectives on powers outside politics and [introduce] a rebalance between men and women, North and South, tradition and modernity.”

Photo: François-Xavier Gbré. Untitled, 2013, © François-Xavier Gbré
Photo: François-Xavier Gbré. Untitled, 2013, © François-Xavier Gbré Courtesy Ed Cross

The third chapter of this exhibition notes that the legacy of postcolonial utopias continues to inspire artists to confront present-day landscapes at a time when Africa’s place in the world has never been more vital. The stark realities of globalisation and inequality are made visible as artists contemplate the impact of climate change and urbanisation on local communities. The work of François-Xavier Gbré, Andrew Esiebo and Kiluanji Kia Henda documents the expansion and transformation of urban cityscapes while Mário Macilau, Aida Muluneh, and Julianknxx explore themes of migration and climate activism in ways that empower the viewer to imagine hopeful new futures. In times of crisis, and as in ‘In The Black Fantastic’, such artists also find inspiration in the promise of new worlds and shared dreams for a new society. Dispensing with colonial visions of Africa, they turn to the ‘planetary’, where humans, technology and the natural world come together to form interconnected ecosystems. In the final room of the exhibition, artists, including Julianknxx, consider how the natural environment fosters conditions for growth and rebirth. They address nature as a dynamic and generative force, inviting us to imagine new ways of inhabiting the earth.

Aida Muluneh, the Founder and Director of the Addis Foto Fest, says: “Creativity and art are powerful forces for change in the world. As a photographer working in Ethiopia, my vision has been to create art that courageously challenges clichés and portrays the strength, beauty and heritage of Africa and its women.”

‘A World In Common’ showcases how photography allows the past and future to co-exist in powerful and unexpected ways while creating spaces for exchange and discovery that invite us all to imagine new ways of inhabiting the earth. Reaching back in time as well as into the future while reaching towards myth and spiritual belief, creating rituals that transcend cultural boundaries, conceiving a world in common to imagine a future of possibility; we need more of such thinking, more of such exhibitions, and more shared artistic visions that reclaim Africa’s histories and reimagine its place in the world.

Top Photo: Aïda Muluneh, Star Shine Moon Glow, 2018. From the Series Water Life. Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 800 x 800mm Commissioned by WaterAid and supported by the H&M Foundation. © Aïda Muluneh

A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography, Tate Modern, until 14 January 2024.

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