- Text by Miss Rosen
The history of photography and Western imperialism are closely intertwined, as the camera was long used as a tool for the subjugation and objectification. Europeans introduced photography to Africa in the mid-19th century, often taking pictures of native peoples against their will and using those images to propagandise “the white man’s burden”.
But with the advent of the African Independence Movement during the 20th century, things began to shift as native peoples wrest control of their lands and their image. In authoring their history and contemporary life, new ideas and aesthetics came to the fore, introducing vital, innovative voices that offer new ways of considering not only the continent but the very medium of photography itself.
“We’re in an extraordinary moment of creative flourishing when it comes to African photography,” says Ekow Eshun, author of Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent (Thames & Hudson).
“I chose not to feature much straight-ahead documentary or reportage photography. I was looking for photographers who asserted their right, as artists, to picture Africa on their own subjective terms. So, this isn’t a book about Africa. It’s a book about how photographers see and imagine Africa from their own unique, individual perspectives.”
Organised into four chapters that explore urban life, gender, sexuality, myth, and memory, Africa State of Mind brings together a new generation of more than 50 artists including Pieter Hugo, Lebohang Khanye, Zanele Muholi, and Lina Iris Viktor. The selection offers a complex, multi-dimensional look at the physical and psychological dimensions of life across Africa today.
The brilliance of their work undercuts historic and contemporary depictions in the West, creating “a kaleidoscopic picture of the continent, in complexity, its contradiction, its everyday beauty,” Eshun says.
“It was especially inspiring to see how the likes of Zanele Muholi, Sabelo Mlangeni, and Eric Gyamfi are using photography to positively assert LGBTQ identities in a continent where socially conservative views on sexuality and gender predominate. Homosexuality is outlawed in 34 out of Africa’s 55 nations.”
Africa State of Mind also reminds readers of the extraordinary artistic and intellectual wealth that flourished for millennia prior to the advent of colonisation.
“We’re in an extraordinary moment of creative flourishing when it comes to African photography,” continues Eshun. “I think some parts of Western society are belatedly coming to realise that we can’t sustain a culture by circulating the same images and aesthetics over and over again. You have to look beyond the boundaries of what’s traditionally been considered the story of art or photography in order for us all to keep moving forward.”
“As the title of the book puts it, Africa, for me, is a state of mind, a psychological state as much as a physical place, and it’s always changing. Always renewing. Always new.”
Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent is published on Thames & Hudson.
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