Aperture magazine has recently released a “Platform Africa” issue, aimed at bringing attention to the institutions and initiatives that have cultivated and facilitated the development of photography in Africa over the last 25 years — particularly the biennials, experimental art spaces, and educational workshops. The issue also presents the work of a new generation of artists, and there is a wide array of styles, approaches to the medium and subject matters represented.
Among these there was one photographer whose work kept tugging me into its undertow of memory-meets-observation-meets-dream life: Mimi Cherono Ng’ok. For me, her work is representative of what photography can do to enliven its own prospects as an artistic medium. Ng’ok typifies what the entire Aperture issue wants to do: concentrate our attention and say there is cause for international consideration of this particular part of the geography because of the work being developed here. What’s intriguing about her images is that she offers photographs that almost beg to be talked about in that most cliché of explanatory devices: memory. This artist, who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and schooled in Cape Town, South Africa, does use color as a kind of emotional tether that pulls the reader through a series of images that might be intimations of memory, but suggest other than that too. Red appears as an intentional element of the photograph’s image, an intervention that adds a layer of quiet sentimentality. Ng’ok is not only remembering , not just witnessing, but she’s marking, signaling to the viewer that she is present in the image in this faint but observable way. She’s made the color a representation of herself as the seeing eye.
For example in “Untitled” her camera gives a beach scene with the sun behind the main figures who are standing on the sand near the water. They are silhouetted against the almost cloudless sky and the red dress worn by the woman yawns in the breeze. This red like a hibiscus flower is matched by another woman wearing red closer to the water. They are the only bright colors in the image and they corral my focus on them like bright flowers among gray stones. Ng’ok is present here, taking me by the chin and aiming my gaze at the important stuff. In an interior shot, “Untitled” (2014) the coiled, patterned red of a curtain rolled up and lodged between iron bars over the windows is the central point, partly in shadow and partly in daylight. She is present here too, having made the curtain a quotidian object that registers future potential — it will block out light, but not now. Now it waits.
However in the others, also “Untitled” (2014), the color actually coats the landscape or figure. In a profile view of a horse, the horse has a track of pink from under is ear down to its mouth, like a rash or a decorative motif that no one washed off. In a view of a simple road, with two figures facing away from the camera, with a copse of trees on the left, the pink is on the right side of the image and bleeding over an indistinct border, as if she shot on film and the film was fogged by exposure to light before developing. The pink haze makes the road pictured a place seen through the eyes of some spirit dwelling there, and there is a bright red top being worn by someone in the distance. This work is all quietly observant, patient, about the photographer lurking in the corner looking for pedestrian colors that contrast against the bleached quality of the context and tell us she is here. It’s as if color is always fugitive and Ng’ok wants to find it and use it to hint at her presence — while keeping herself in the background.
Aperture magazine released its “Platform Africa” issue on June 6.