For me, The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives In Photographic Portraiture From Africa, on view at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery on Columbia University’s campus, feels a bit despondent. Perhaps this is because the gallery is generally under-lit; the work is illuminated by spotlights that leave the rest of the space on the verge of evening. This mournful feeling colored the way I experienced the photography, which I found surprising, and resourceful, but also forlorn.
Take the images of Saïdou Dicko (who makes work in Burkina Faso), particularly his Le Voleur d’ombres (The Thief of Shadows) series, as represented by the five prints in “Le Tour du Faso (The Tour of Faso)” (2007) in which I see the shadow of a man or boy approaching his bicycle to mount it and ride off. All of Dicko’s work shows individuals in silhouette, doing simple, quotidian things (like walking, looking over a shoulder), and their representation via shadow has the unnerving effect of giving the subjects even less presence and nuance than bodies I typically encounter in portraiture. The work provocatively denies me the comfortable and pleasurable position of being able to see a body, gauge its personality, and figure out what kind of attention it is asking of me.
The three other main photographers featured in this show are Sammy Baloji (from the Democratic Republic of Congo), Mohamed Camara (from Mali), and George Osodi (from Nigeria). The front gallery of the exhibition also contains a selection of other portrait work from the continent, which is, according to one of the curators, Joshua Cohen, meant to act as a primer on African photographic portraiture. This gallery includes some very early-20th-century images taken by West African studio photographers, and then jumps forward in time to provocative images made by some contemporary artists working in the continent. For example, there is a portrait of a man with a Hyena on a leash, and then a mostly naked male body covered with black and white spots.
The entire exhibition is meant to look beyond the horizon of defining an African identity, beyond the notion of authentically representing what this identity is supposed to be, as both local and foreign photographers have sought to do. As the gallery director, Deborah Cullen Morales, says in a video that introduces the exhibition online, there is a history of photography of African subjects that is anthropological and documentary in approach; but here the work looks to fantasy, to formal strategies to expand the menu of what we understand is possible in African portrait photography.
Camara’s photographs present a kind of double portrait: one is the person, who holds bags filled with clear water but also with smaller portraits, many of them lost within the glare of the light source, and amplified and intensified by the liquid. They are touching images that shine too brightly now, and that are destined to degrade and fall apart from being submerged. The work is haunting in the way that it highlights the impermanence of the image, and even its signified subjects.
Osodi merges fantasy, history, and politics in his series Devil’s Dexterity, which is made up of photographs he’s taken at scenes of traffic accidents. According to Osodi, Nigerians always blame the devil for these occurrences, ignoring the problems of inadequate infrastructure: bad roads, lack of signage, and the like. In each of the works in this series he has dressed up an actor as “the devil” and has him pose with the vehicles left behind. His exemplary “Untitled” (2008) shows a figure moving his head to the point of blur, next to a rusted-out, abandoned shell of a car. Here the portrait doesn’t pretend to reveal the secret nature of a person or people, but rather utilizes a fictional character to illustrate the social embrace of storytelling and superstitions.
Baloji’s work is the most historical: it remakes the genre of the colonial portrait by taking ethnographic and colonial images of Congolese people, recontextualizing them within European watercolors that were made of the region. The resulting photographs are insightful commentary on how portrait images have over time served radically different purposes: as classification and exoticization in an earlier moment, and now meta-discursive awareness of how the struggle over images is a political one.
This exhibition is one that I had to see twice, and even then, only upon reflection began to understand how significant its ambitions are. I was frustrated by the ephemerality of the figure in much of this work — how difficult it was to grasp the subject who is only partially seen or represented by shadows. However, I can recognize that in a departure from the history of portraiture made on the continent, the bodies of the people are not the primary objects that these artists aim to depict. These artists aim at history, at memory, at social practices, at viewers’ expectations wrapped up in the photographic image. Thus, the figure, of course, would slip a bit from view.
The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives In Photographic Portraiture From Africa continues at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery (Schermerhorn Hall, 8th floor, Columbia University at 116th Street on Broadway, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through December 10.