Discussions of West African portrait photography tend to gravitate towards the 1960s and ’70s, the era of such well-known artists as Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, and Samuel Fosso. Portraits from these decades of political change reflect the dynamism of cultures burgeoning from postcolonial independence. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, which draws its 80 works solely from the Met’s collection, fleshes out a longer and more varied history of West African photo portraiture, including amateur and popular commercial practices that acted as precursors to the more acclaimed works of later decades.
In discussion with Hyperallergic, Dr. Giulia Paoletti, curator of In and Out of the Studio together with Yaëlle Biro, associate curator in the Met’s Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, offered insight into the research process:
Some of the best findings emerged as I was studying the Visual Resource Archive (VRA), which is part of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The VRA features an incredibly diverse collection — from fieldwork photographs to images of African art objects, from postcards to personal albums. Yet most of its holdings have not been fully digitized and are little known to the larger public. … While working within the little-known, yet large, VRA collection, we were able to make a very tight selection of eighty works — the majority of which had never been seen.
In and Out of the Studio is organized both chronologically and by theme. The exhibition’s earliest works hail from photography studios that served the most well-to-do citizens of local communities. Sitters commissioned portraits to capture their social standing, using dress, setting, pose, and accessories as socioeconomic indicators. A picture by George A. G. and Albert George Lutterodt, “Five Men” (c. 1880–85), presents a serious group of subjects against a studio backdrop. Two of the men do not look at the camera, appearing completely absorbed in perfecting their poses. The photo suggests that the goal here was the finished product, not a spontaneous give-and-take between sitter and camera. Many of the exhibition’s early photographs, whether taken in studios or by amateurs, demonstrate this priority of subject over instrument; the camera is used to capture an intimate verity, not to manipulate reality.
These early works, from the 1800s and early 1900s, include studio portraits, shots by amateur photographers, postcards, and negatives. Despite the range of mediums, they come together to create an aesthetic and cultural history with more continuity than one might expect. “When we ‘rediscovered’ the Lutterodt’s original print in the archives, we could not have imagined that the author was the first of the many generations of photographers who had opened some of the earliest studios along the Gold Coast in the 1870s,” Dr. Paoletti commented.
In and Out of the Studio purposefully does not include images of Africans created by Europeans with the aim of upholding colonial logic. Dr. Paoletti explained:
The exhibition seeks to debunk many assumptions about photographic practices in Africa. One of these is that when this technology arrived, it developed in a void mimicking Western codes. Local photographers and sitters developed an aesthetic that accommodated new trends and was rooted in local social and artistic codes … signs of prestige and beauty that would have been legible to the sitters’ circle. At the peak of colonialism, while Europeans were taking dehumanizing photos, Africans were commissioning and consuming photography — the modern medium par excellence.
By only featuring images by West African photographers, the show exposes how the dominant, European narrative of photography excludes a more diverse understanding of how the medium was initially used and how it developed. The history of West African photo portraiture presented here complicates and enriches an understanding of photography’s social and artistic uses. For example, In and Out of the Studio suggests that West African portrait photographers developed the genre not by increasing photographic manipulation, as one sees in the Soviet Union or Europe in the early 20th century, but rather by developing a personal style — not by manipulating reality but by leaving one’s own stamp upon it.
Indeed, part of the enduring appeal of the later works on display is the extremely unique aesthetic of each artist. A Malick Sidibé photograph does not look like a Seydou Keïta, and neither looks like a Samuel Fosso. But each has a particular glamour: the free spirit of Sidibé’s young subjects; Keïta’s patterns, which endow his sitters with emotion and dignity; Fosso’s disco-era self-portraits, which both beguile and betray the loneliness of constant reinvention. The exhibition also includes works by Senegalese photographer Omar Ka, whose use of cloth backdrops that are purposefully dwarfed by surrounding landscapes suggests the limits of constructed portrait identities.
It’s difficult to sum up an exhibition that covers such breadth of time and location; In and Out of the Studio is only a snippet of a complex and varied history. However, self-determination does emerge as a unifying theme. A Malick Sidibé self-portrait from 1956 — in an original frame made of orange and green reverse-painted glass, tape, cardboard, and string — shows the white-suited photographer looking at the camera, his mouth slightly open in an expression of feigned surprise. He sits at what appears to be a desk, and on the wall behind him are poster ads. Sidibé’s style captures the optimism of youthful identity, a simultaneous beauty and arrogance, perhaps also mirroring the mood in Mali just four years before independence. This image shows photographic portraiture to be an organ of independence, a way of both capturing truth and bending it for the historical record.
In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 3, 2016.