Looking at Africa

Okwui Enwezor
11 July 2006

Photography has maintained a vital presence in African culture for over a century. But the recognition of African photographers and their unique visual language has come about only recently. When western photography engages Africa, it seems often to evoke pathological images of disease, corruption and poverty. The global media almost never depict contemporary Africans in "ordinary" situations; images of crisis frequently eclipse other representations.

In response to this partial view that overlooks the complexities of daily life across a vast continent of over fifty nations, Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography forces a recognition of the contradictory and varied forms of photographic practice that are now arising across Africa.

Snap Judgements: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, 30 June – 27 August, 2006, Miami Art Central

Curated by Okwui Enwezor, this exhibition will present over 200 works by 35 artists from a dozen countries, encompassing the African continent from the Muslim cultures of North Africa to the sub-Saharan nations of the south.

Read Holland Cotter's New York Times review of the exhibition, and his interview with Okwui Enwezor in Newsgrist

African myths

From the earliest recorded history of the photographic encounter, Africa has made for a fascinating and elusive subject, at once strange, intoxicating, carnal, primitive, wild, luminous. At first the desire to record the exotic, mysterious beauty of the black continent may have provided the incentive to invent a kind of sport in which a hunter-like figure wielding congeries of instruments stalks a game-like subject — suspended between an abyss of indeterminacy and plenitude — waiting to be literally captured.

This early phase of the photographic sport (dominated by ethnographers, prospectors, speculators, prosecutors of the colonial enterprise) yielded a huge archive of visual tropes about Africa that have persisted in the popular imagination. Today, hunter and game remain more or less the same, except that the result has become not only outlandish but has also acquired a quality of myth impossible to dislodge from the real. In this latter phase, Africa has been transformed into a wasteland of the bizarre and outrageous.

No other cultural landscape has had a more problematic association with the photographic medium: its apparatus, various industries, orders of knowledge, and hierarchies of power. The act of photographing Africa has often been bound up with a certain conflict of vision: between how Africans see their world and how others see that world. In a way, this is a clash of lenses, a struggle to locate and represent Africa by two committed but disparate sensibilities — one intensely absorbed in its social and cultural world, the other passing through it, fleetingly, on one assignment or another.

The latter sensibility has come to represent spectres that haunt Africa. It is constituted around an accumulation of myths. This photographic sensibility works on assumptions based not so much on what it sees but on a preordained, fragmented, and internalised view of the world Africans seem to occupy. This view feeds a phantom essence and releases it as a readymade canon of fascination and repulsion. The image of Africa that I am describing, and which has overwhelmed every other pictorial value, has been produced as much from processes of estrangement as from positions of engagement.

I want us to direct attention to the multiple ways of representing African life and space, to enunciate forms of visual practice that open us up to the facts that we not only share the same space but also the same time. In other words, I am speaking about visual practices that recognise coevalness, that reach beyond the stock images that have endured until now as the iconography of the "abandoned" continent.

In light of this exhibition inquiry, how might the photographic apparatus — that is, any digital or mechanical, duplicating instrument — engage the continent's vast and complex visual world without resorting to the clichéd metaphors of the media's horror index? This inquiry is as much about photography as it is about representation.

Wherever and whenever photography engages Africa, it invents a pathology of spectrality and transience. Each pathology in turn invents its own panacea: pity, infantilisation, paternalism, or the reanimation of the grotesque. It could be said that photography's greatest accomplishment is the vast encyclopedia of cures that have followed each of its forays into the continent. Whether we are witnessing visual splendour or astounding civil disorder, Live Aid and other charity events will always be on the near horizon to intercede. This exhibition is not about any of that. It is not about disorder. Nor is it about the collapse of civility, nor genocidal wars. It is not a recapitulation of pathologies.

"Normal" Africa

As the curator, one of my aims with the exhibition was to pose questions about the role of images in the public narratives of the African self and spaces within a changing global image ecology. It is not centred on a specific dispute, nor is its critique simplistic. The exhibition comprises discreet, modest, and forceful propositions on how to look at Africa, and how artists work with the tool of photography to trace the arc of a different social reality that is both deliberately pictorial and narrative in approach, and at the same time challenges the historical dependence on narratives of anomie.

African artists and photographers are looking at the unfolding drama of contemporary life and experience in Africa with a fine-tuned alertness. They are examining and analysing the dizzying processes of spatial transformation, massive transition, and social adaptation that make up the varied realities of diverse groups: urban and rural, formal and informal communities. The artists' penetrating insight provides the remarkable story of this project.

Each of the artists has either taken up a problematic or focused attention on social subjects. For instance, a number of artists explore the interstices of urban communities undergoing transformation, while others use very simple mechanisms of portraiture to spotlight the self-expression of individuals portrayed, or deploy the artifice of fashion stylisation to draw out values of individual identity. Overall, the works assembled here aid us in examining a different context of image-making that is as "African" in its aesthetic intentions as in its ethical concerns.

Given the prevailing, anti-photogenic gaze of these artists, the exhibition most certainly denies the viewer the violent spectacle of deprivation and depravity that has constituted the signature visual image of Africa. In fact, the works evidence a subtle yet substantive critique of such images. Not because there is no deprivation or depravity in contemporary Africa, but because the metaphors of violence and poverty cheapen our understanding of the cultural context.

The paradox is that images of suffering – which function as a sort of shorthand for neither looking properly nor seeing Africans in "normal" human terms – do not ameliorate the disasters that they purportedly engage. On the contrary, they have compounded and skewed the photographic imperatives of a mediatised fascination with the continent's "abnormality" as the primal scene of global media's masochist pleasure, its unrelenting horror vacui. This is why quite often what the viewer encounters in the works produced by artists and photographers in this exhibition is a kind of anti-photogenic and anti-spectacular approach to making images.

Adapted from an essay by Okwui Enwezor for the "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary Photography" exhibition catalogue

Click on the image below to launch the slideshow

Snap Judgements: contemporary African photography”

The photographs in this slideshow are a small selection from the exhibition, Snap Judgements: contemporary African photography

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