Art

Photography From Africa that Refuses Easy Narratives

Africa State of Mind does not pander to expectations audiences might have or desire of African artists, instead allowing for these artists from 11 different countries to devise their own frameworks for understanding the places they are from.

Athi Patra Ruga, “Night of the Long Knives III” (2013) (photo by Hayden Phipps)

SAN FRANCISCO — What is Africa? Africa State of Mind compels us to answer variations on that difficult question. The show, curated by Ekow Eshun at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), does more than fixate on racist stereotypes. The show does not purport to offer definitive answers about the nature of the continent, but rather grapples with contemporary identities using photography as a medium. It calls on audiences to consider various conditions, concerns, “advancements,” and shortcomings so many years after colonialism’s end. The images are more interested in memory and myth-making than the limiting and fruitless desire to show you the Africa you don’t see. 

If we were to appropriate Binyavanga Wainaina’s illuminating satirical piece “How to Write About Africa” for a more banal version of this show, we might use words like “contradictions” or “transcending conditions.” We might describe “unexpectedly” good work emerging from a single country as a kind of “national renaissance” and trot out the same tokenized one or two (or three!) acclaimed artists as evidence that they, too, can be cosmopolitan and produce worldly and relevant art (though we might instead use “Afropolitan” as a more continentally appropriate descriptor). Thankfully, Africa State of Mind doesn’t force African history and industrial and cultural production into Western historiographic frames. When we do, we praise structurally adjusted growth and, for example, transpose queer imperialist rights-based values onto LGBTQI communities as though African indigenous life has never yielded what we now describe as gender nonconformity. Without that imposed frame, the narratives presented by the 15 artists in the show might lose a comfortable legibility because of the ways we generally struggle to offer political and artistic self-determination to African people. Nonetheless, Africa State of Mind does not pander to expectations audiences might have or desire of African artists, instead allowing for these artists from 11 different countries to devise their own frameworks for understanding the places they are from. 

The anti-Blackness inherent to Eurocentrism renders Africans and their diaspora without any agency to dictate their own notions of time, progress, personhood, and aesthetics (beyond what is simultaneously admired, hoarded, and degraded as artisanal craft). In refusing to see Africans as meaningful makers of civilizations (it was more feasible for many European explorers that aliens had built the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt or the stone architecture of Great Zimbabwe as opposed to indigenous Africans), we foreclose the possibility that they can offer meaningful interpretations of their own realities. At MoAD, artists Raphaël Barontini and Neil Beloufa offer these overlooked interpretations of the past and future. Barontini’s giant tapestry represents the amalgamated fabric of histories, aesthetics, and ideas comprising “Africanness,” from Roman sculptures to Rwandan Tutsi people to the diversities of Indigenous cosmologies; Beloufa’s 2007 short film “Kempinski” shows residents of Bamako envisioning a future of high-speed travel, telepathic sex, and houses that cannot be seen but allow boundless movement. 

Eric Gyamfi (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On the show’s third floor, which broadly focuses on ideas around citizenship, there is one section titled “Zones of Freedom” devoted to queer and gender non-conforming life. Eric Gyamfi’s Just Like Us and Sabelo Mlangeni’s Country Girls capture a “normalized” queer existence (an oxymoron of sorts to many homoantagonists) that creates space for community, intimacy, and pleasure even within often antagonistic and sometimes violent social conditions. Their work recalls the more subdued classical portrait work of Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta: like their illustrations of life in Mali, Gyamfi’s and Mlangeni’s images double as art and archival evidence of queer life in Ghana and rural South Africa, respectively. On the opposing wall, the colorfully suited subjects of Ruth Ossai’s photographs invoke the flamboyant and heavily queer-coded self-portraiture of Samuel Fosso. The contrast on display between more traditional documentary-style portraiture and work remniscent of self-portraiture (particularly in the age of the much derided selfie) demonstrates the distinct opportunities available for the self-fashioning and presentation of queer identities. Ruga’s absurdist “Night of the Long Knives” illustrates an alternate post-independence reality in Azania where the central subject of the photograph (perhaps the Azanian citizen itself) appears cocooned in colorful balloons and suspended in the liminal space between man and woman, Black and white. The entombed subject, like a butterfly, is undergoing a transformation or metamorphosis. Azania refers to the liberation-era concept of an Africanist South Africa for Black South Africans, where colonial markers of gendered and sexual identity cease to be qualifiers of belonging; Azania is, at least for now, pure fantasy. 

Kiluanji Kia Henda, “The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction Act I” (2017) (image courtesy the artist and the Museum of the African Diaspora)

On the same floor, Musa N. Nxumalo and Kiluanji Kia Henda continue to explore questions around citizenship through their examinations of state politics. They are two distinct takes on two distinctly different figures: Kia Henda takes parodical aim at the archetypal “strongman,” and Nxumalo trains his attention on the multifaceted nature of South African youth. 

Kia Henda’s Last Journey of the Dictator Mussanda N’Zombo Before the Great Extinction (in 5 Acts) juxtaposes a dandy-like president-king — this one modeled after Congolese dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko — against the backdrop of the comically unnatural taxidermy of a colonial natural history museum. The dictatorial figure in his natural habitat reminds us that although once-revolutionary leaders on the continent often cannibalize their children because of their own desires for power, the “Big Man” is a bogeyman desperately needed by the West. He is often a figure of their making, like Mobutu, who assisted in the joint American-Belgian efforts to depose and assassinate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and was subsequently propped up by those same forces as a stalwart anti-Soviet ally in Francophone Africa. Incidentally, as a first generation American of Zimbabwean descent, this piece resonates very differently for me since the recent passing of former president Robert Mugabe. In a way we are convinced of these leaders’ immortality. But even after they die, we are haunted by the states of disrepair they often leave behind, as well as by competing memorializations of their political legacies. 

Nxumalo’s photographs of participants in the Fees Must Fall movement across South Africa show students seriously confronting economic inequalities, but also enjoying nightlife and leisure. The title of the series, 16 Shots, connects the brutal response of South African Police Services to the student protests and the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. It reminds us that even though apartheid is over in name, the forces that seek to protect state capital not only persist, but they are in ideological and material collaboration with one another even across oceans and borders and the diaspora itself.

Girma Berta, “Moving Shadows II, VIII” (2017) (image courtesy the Artist & Afronova Gallery)

On the lower floor, in “Hybrid Cities,” Girma Berta, Michael Tsegaye, Emmanuelle Andrianjafy, Sammy Baloji, and Michael McGarry offer various lenses into the urban city. It is unsurprising to have two series devoted to Addis Ababa — one in Berta’s Moving Shadows and the other in Tsegaye’s Future Memories — given that, as the headquarters of the African Union (and the Organisation of African Unity before that), it is often described as Africa’s political capital. There is another common thread in these artists’ works: informal economies and black markets run parallel to and sometimes eclipse formal financial structures; slum conditions are a stone’s throw from the perceived successes of industrialism. In these photographs, the city doesn’t exist despite the slum — it produces and complements it. While industrialization has alleviated the impoverishment of some, the urban poverty of many others is still necessitated by that very same process. It is not a surprising juxtaposition for anyone familiar, but it is still a startling consequence of assimilating Africans into a global political-economic structure that ultimately never sought to benefit them. 

Emmanuelle Andrianjafy, “Untitled” (2015), from Nothing’s in Vain (MACK 2017)

Towards the end of the show, Lebohang Kganye reminds us how the personal lives of African women are always the most deeply intertwined with politics. Kganye invokes the memory of her late mother by superimposing herself onto photographs of her mother in her younger years with identical clothing and poses: her mother lives on in her face, they look strikingly similar. The series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story strikes another chord as a broader memorialization of deceased and disappeared women in the thick of South African protests against femicide (including particularly targeted queer and transgender women) and the state of emergency declared in response to that violence. Time and time again, motherhood is metonymic for one’s place of origin, whether your mother’s womb, your mother country, or a continental motherland that birthed Blackness and a transcontinental diaspora.

Lebohang Kganye, “Ka 2 – phisi yaka e pinky II” (2013) (image courtesy the Artist & Afronova Gallery)

Africa State of Mind reminds us of the importance of focusing on specific narratives — even if they are not related or even contradictory — as opposed to defining the continent as a homogeneous mass upon which our paranoias, desires, or disdains can be more easily projected. The different politics and ideas and representations in this show remind us that the continent contains a vast diversity of philosophical, cultural, linguistic, and sartorial life. 

Africa State of Mind continues at the Museum of the African Diaspora (685 Mission St, San Francisco) through November 15. The exhibition is curated by Ekow Eshun. 

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