PHILADELPHIA — In Akinbode Akinbiyi’s photograph, the pyramids of Giza, built over 4,500 years ago, are captured through a mess of fencing, with the tight rows of rigid iron rods obscuring the ancient wonders. The pyramids stand just outside modern Cairo, the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world. In Akinbiyi’s busy, perhaps even unflattering image, the famous monuments are shown as part of the contemporary urban fabric, revealing layers of time. We see them as they appear today and not as they seem to be in our imaginations.
Curated by Peter Barberie, Three Photographers/Six Cities is part of Creative Africa, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s season devoted to African art and design. This small exhibition focuses on series of photographs by Akinbiyi, Ananias Léki Dago, and Seydou Camara, three artists who explore the urban landscape of Bamako, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Timbuktu. Here, the metropolis is ever changing and noisy, even in the quietest scenes. Yet against signs of rapid growth and untamable development, there are often surprising traces of history, rich and scarred.
Akinbiyi, the Berlin-based, Nigerian photographer, has been working since the 1970s and much of his oeuvre is best described as street photography. He has spoken about the importance of wandering through cities on foot in a sort of dance, as he negotiates the tension between invading the space of others and attempting to understand it. He insists that he does not want to be understood as a flâneur or to be described as an observer, instead Akinbiyi foregrounds the importance of wonder; he attempts to grasp what is happening in the city while acknowledging that it is impossible to fully comprehend it. History pervades his images of Cairo. Ancient structures are captured within busy modern scenes filled with buses and billboards as people, cars, and laden carts seem to narrowly miss each other while weaving through the city streets.
Akinbiyi’s series, such as Lagos: All Roads, convey the rapidity of movement and transformation that drives contemporary urban life. Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities in the world: in 1950 it had around 250,000 inhabitants and today the population may be as high as 21,000,000, though estimates vary widely. In Philadelphia, the square prints from this series are hung together in a tight group with little space between the frames. This ordered arrangement jars against the chaos and noise that flows out of the images: the blur of the vans, the overlapping street signs advertising local businesses and services, the piles of trash spreading wide enough to overwhelm the sidewalks, and the salesmen peddling their wares on the beaches, where children play and groups of men gather to converse. The composition of the images, combined with the structure of the display, eloquently convey the push and pull between strain and excitement that shapes life in this old port city. While many of the spaces documented by the three photographs are male dominated, women appear in the crowded street scenes, often carrying a package or a child, or as the smiling face in an advertisement.
Like Akinbiyi, Ivorian photographer Léki Dago often takes months or years to craft his photographic series. Between 2006 and 2012, he explored Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Bamako with his Leica, and a sampling of this work is on view in Three Photographers. In South Africa, he became fascinated with shebeens, small illegal nightclubs and bars that first appeared during apartheid, when the black population was not allowed to drink alcohol. People gathered at these establishments to drink moonshine and to congregate away from the prying eyes of the authorities. Today it is no longer illegal to drink alcohol, but these bars remain active, and Léki Dago captures how these sites of past dissent function today. For this series, he adopted a documentary approach akin to the anthropological style of the participant observer. He has described the difficulty of simply walking into such places sober, how his presence felt like a violation. Instead, he visited shebeens without his camera and joined the locals in their drinking, attempting to form a sense of intimacy — becoming an equal was impossible — before taking photographs. Although these images are full of people, their faces are often obscured. In one, the most dominant human presence is recorded through absence, in the row of shadows cast onto a pool table.
In Nairobi, Léki Dago focused his camera on matabi, the corrugated sheets of metal that were brought to Kenya by British colonizers to construct temporary structures. Although the colonists are long gone, one of the most striking aspects of matabi is their economic legacy, with its genesis in the colonial past as a cheap material that has become the quintessential construction material of urban slums. In a photograph from Korogocho, one of the largest slum neighborhoods in Kenya, Léki Dago documents the interior wall of a house fabricated from mismatched scraps of matabi. While most of the image is an undulating grey, bright sunlight bursts through seams and gaps in the patchwork siding and sneaks in through holes that have been worn in the metal.
From 2009 to 2013, Camara, a native of Mali, photographed manuscripts in Timbuktu. While the Malian city is often invoked as a symbol of the most distant and exotic land, it is also a centuries-old center of trade and Islamic scholarship, where handwritten texts in Arabic and in African languages in the Arabic script were produced between the 13th and 20th centuries. In his series, Camara mixes pictures of the ancient town with those that record the fragile books. He captures the efforts to conserve and transcribe the manuscripts, providing details of skilled hands scribing elegant letters and careful scholars turning crumbling pages. Recent political unrest in northern Mali has put these texts in peril, though families and archivists have risked their lives to guard many of them. There is a sense of wonder and fragile sadness in these photographs. The manuscripts may be much younger than the pyramids of Giza, yet it seems even more amazing that these small, delicate objects have survived for so long. The presence of the past in the present is different here, but it speaks to the same eclecticism that shapes these cities.
Three Photographers/Six Cities continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through September 25.