Arts and Entertainment | Art

Worldscapes at Wallach: Beyond the frame of contemporary African portrait photography

The Wallach Art Gallery’s walls are alive with faces—young, old, bright, obscured. Its current exhibit, “The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture from Africa,” features bold, life-sized prints from contributing artists Sammy Baloji, Mohamed Camara, Saïdou Dicko, and George Osodi. On display until Dec. 10, the collection explores a broad subject—lens-based images from the African continent and diaspora. It is a theme that may appear too expansive for a single exhibit to cover, but “The Expanded Subject” takes a unique approach.

This past Friday, Oct. 21, the exhibit’s curators invited a panel of artists and scholars in the field to discuss the future of photography in Africa at “Beyond the Frame,” a symposium held in Schermerhorn.

Exhibit curators Joshua I. Cohen, Giulia Paoletti, and Sandrine Colard organized each photographer’s series based on visual elements. Camara’s offhand photos of daily life are grainy and personal, while Osodi’s staged portraits are harshly lit and epic. Baloji’s surreal collages combine black-and-white with color elements, while Dicko’s shots combine raw palettes with carefully framed subjects.

The exhibit’s title is broader than its contents. Rather than an attempt to survey photography from the entire continent of Africa—a geographical concept that is too often pigeonholed and generalized, its interior diversity ignored—“The Expanded Subject” is a glimpse into only a few of the current photography scenes in only a few African countries.  

As Paoletti, a curator of the exhibit and art history lecturer at Columbia, explained, “We were very clear that we did not want to give—that it would not be possible to give—a comprehensive history of the continent.” Instead, they intended to select the perspectives of a few photographers who are moving and shaking the industry, challenging the traditions and tropes of the photography that comes out of their home continent. “There are so many contemporary artists in practice that are very diverse, and I think often the larger audience is not aware of this,” she said.

The exhibit takes visitors through the history and “greatest hits” of photography from Africa, before immersing them in the respective worlds of the featured photographers. Certain art industry traditions and “typical” ways of critiquing have, until recently, dominated the photography discourse in Africa. “The four artists are really going against those [traditions],” said Deborah Cullen, director and chief curator of Wallach Art Gallery.

Cullen and her fellow curators were pleased with the depth of the dialogue that enlivened Friday’s symposium, in which a range of issues surrounding the markets and infrastructures for up-and-coming photographers in Africa were discussed. Symposium attendees and panel members alike raised questions about the current work environment for photographers in cultural hubs like Bamako in Mali.

Panelist Antawan Byrd, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern, served as an associate commissioner for the city’s world-renowned photography biennial, Les Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters).  Byrd and moderator Kerryn Greenberg, of London’s Tate Modern, highlighted material disconnects facing important art festivals across Africa. Byrd lamented, for example, the lack of infrastructure in Bamako for high-quality printing and framing and the inhibitive costs of outsourcing this work to other countries.

Both speakers also pointed out how festivals such as Les Rencontres, as well as other public platforms for photography publication and display in Africa, are often caught in a web of public and private financing that makes it difficult for artists to maintain a sense of autonomy and  independence. Debate ensued about the nature of investments in art collectives and galleries in Bamako and beyond, which, as Byrd aptly pointed out, often still come from the U.S. and Europe—the dangers of which, panelists seemed to agree, include prolonging a postcolonial narrative of private finance and preventing art institutions across Africa from developing independently.

Those unable to participate in the symposium, Cullen assured, can still get the full experience, as a video of the discussion will be posted on the Wallach Art Gallery’s website this coming week. In the meantime, a visit to Schermerhorn Eight is well worth the trip up the stairs. “The Expanded Subject’s” photographers’ work is as subtly political as it is visually appealing.  The expo provides an exciting glance at the aesthetics, coming from some of Africa’s art centers that have the potential to redefine portrait photography worldwide.

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