Apagya, Tweaking the Tradition of African Studio Portraiture


For anyone who still believes that photography from Africa must be political, didactic, or heartbreaking, the photographs of Philip Kwame Apagya immediately lay those notions to rest. Apagya, who lives and works in the small Ghanaian fishing village of Shama, has created a series of color portraits of the local citizenry posed against cheerful, upbeat backdrops. His subjects smile like tourists in front of idealized views of middle-class living rooms, high-tech offices, tropical gardens, and modern city streets, as if they were visiting a vision of a modernized future that is not yet quite within their reach.

In Apagya’s world, a beaming young woman waves goodbye as she boards a jumbo jet and a well-dressed businessman proudly shows off his secretary at her computer station. The heartbreak, if there is any at all, is in the fact that both the airport and the office are strictly two-dimensional props, hand-painted by the artist in a cartoonish style, yet with an uncanny sense of scale and perspective. While some pictures achieve amazing trompe l’oeil effects, it’s easy to spot the artifice at hand, but this lack of seamless production values only adds poignancy to the images. In Accra 2050, a schoolgirl in a crisp white uniform overlooks a spotless version of Ghana’s capital. The sparkling blue sky of this futuristic scene abruptly ends just below the top of the crumbling studio wall.

Apagya, like Samuel Fosso and Zwelethu Mthethwa, is mining a long-standing tradition of studio portraiture in Africa, depicting Africans with pride as a subtle but resolute stance against colonial subjugation. Apagya’s upwardly mobile subjects pose without a trace of anger or skepticism. Instead, they seem to embrace a shiny, product-driven future, even if it can only be realized in the photographer’s imagination.