A Cacophonous Affair

From the austerely documentary to the resolutely fabulist

A land mass 10 times the size of Europe, divided into 52 countries, inhabited by people speaking over 800 languages and with innumerable ethnic, religious, and political differences, "Africa," the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote, "is a 'multiple existence.' " So it's fitting that "Snap Judgments" is a wildly diverse, cacophonous affair. This sprawling show presents the work of 35 photographers, from locales as varied as Egypt, Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa, and whose approaches to the medium range from the austerely documentary to the resolutely fabulist.

Ten years ago, the show's Nigerian-born curator, Okwui Enzwezor, helped organized "In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present," a groundbreaking exhibi tion at the Guggenheim, introducing key figures like Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibe, and Samuel Fosso, whose regal portraits of

Malian matrons, candid shots of Bamako nightclubbers, and gender-bending self-portrayals, respectively, have since made their way into the artistic mainstream.

Bus Stop, Old Harare, 2001, by Luis Basto
Copyright Luis Basto, Courtesy Luis Basto
Bus Stop, Old Harare, 2001, by Luis Basto

"Snap Judgments" reflects a decade of change in both the social landscape of Africa and in photographic practices, which have migrated closer toward the art world's center. African artists, like their contemporaries elsewhere, are using photography to document performances and stage fantasized tableaux; they, too, are mining the photograph itself for residues of history. Absent here are the relentlessly pathologized images of Africa on view in the daily newspaper, portraying victims of AIDS, famine, and genocide. The Africa many of these artists depict is a continent virtually unknown in the West, of people going about their daily lives.

Take the young South African photographer Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko's street shots of Johannesburg hipsters dressed in electric, Kool-Aid colors. Their incorrigible chic and appropriations of Western icons—a clutch purse made of pressed Coca-Cola cans, camouflage knickers, red fishnet stockings—proclaim them heirs to Ke dandified Bamakois bourgeoisie. If independence has a style, this is it—vivid, highly individualized, and a touch defiant. These images are antidotes to the prevailing view of the "dark continent" as a place of entropy and despair; these are people in charge of at least their own sartorial destiny.

Geography combines with psychology in a subtle essay by Yto Barrada, documenting the physical presence and emotional weight of the Strait of Gibraltar—the perilous gateway for would-be immigrants to Western Europe—in the lives of Moroccans.

That dynamic duo, Africa and the West—unstable mirrors, inextricably intertwined, each reflecting the other's fantasy—returns repeatedly, with sometimes comic effects, as in Lara Baladi's candy-colored, mural-sized montage depicting a European formal garden packed with images, drawn from Egyptian popular culture and the artist's personal history, of a hybrid femininity and modernism. A similar sense of dislocation informs Mohamed Camara's whimsical, staged visions of a shirtless African Everyman viewing a snowy, alpine landscape or trapped in elaborate, neon Christmas decorations.

Camara and Sada Tangara were born just a year apart, in Mali, but a world of difference separates the budding young art star from his former countryman, who emigrated as a child to Senegal, where he received his first disposal camera in an art school and shelter for homeless youths. His black-and-white portraits of children sleeping on the streets of Dakar betray a quiet tenderness, intimacy, and dignity.

If there are somber, recurring themes here—the sense of transcendental home- lessness, emanating from Guy Tillim's pictures of cell-like apartments in decaying Johannesburg high-rises, or the failure of modernist social utopias, made manifest in Fatou Kande Senghor's severely beautiful transparencies depicting the ruins of Senegal's Palais de Justice—these motifs are lightened, at least in part, by evidence of a scrappy will-to-get-by. Randa Shaath's Cairenes, living in tiny former laundry rooms on the rooftops of their overcrowded city, throw parties.

And if these pictures bear witness to tragedies—most movingly, in the Algerian Omar D's searing, metaphysical portraits of people scarred by his country's continued violence—there is also evidence of a refreshing openness, a shift in long-ossified relations. Luis Basto's youth in a knit cap, staring out of the night in Maputo, Mozambique's capital, seems to assert, in the face of colonialism's legacy, that he and the photographer together will set the terms for an unknown encounter.

 
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