African art is having a moment. Opening next week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Creative Africa, an exhibition that takes both a contemporary and an historic look at the continent. The Brooklyn Museum opened Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, where 25 living artists explore African masquerade. Jack Shainman Gallery recently put on what became the Malian photographer Malick Sidibe’s final black-and-white solo picture show. This week,1:54, the largest contemporary African art fair in the world, returns to New York. Then down the street from 1:54, a new exhibition, New African Photography, presented in partnership with the Africa-focused media brand Nataal and Red Hook Labs, explores the culture of the continent through six contemporary photographers. [Full disclosure: Antwaun is a member of the 1:54 host party committe, which just means he's super qualified to talk about it here.]
“We are not just trying to say one thing about Africa or tell one story about African photography,” explains Helen Jennings from Nataal, who co-curated the show alongside colleagues Sara Hemming and Red Hook Labs founder Jimmy Moffat. Says Jennings, “We quite like the variety of styles represented. We just want to put across a very diverse and positive viewpoint of contemporary visual arts in Africa today. We want them to speak for themselves.”
New African Photography is Red Hook Labs' debut exhibition, featuring traditional portraits, fashion photography, documentary, and conceptual photo works. The French-Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo’s portrait Highness-Hybrid I of a masked woman mixes the traditional—in portraiture and culture—and the contemporary, to render a stylized image that evokes the past and present at once. The South African artist Kristin Lee Moolman’s black-and-white photo, Faka #02, of two men laying black holding each other, flies into fantasy, provoking conversations about love, and the current and future state of shifting regional politics and attitudes. The Cairo-based Owise Abuzaid explores the city from the vantage point of the street. Owise’s image of a car against a pink wall and blue sky is a picturesque moment of mundane urban life. There are also works exhibited that explore post-colonial practices in the African Diaspora.
The exhibition settles into a prevailing sentiment that the ways art is created on the continent or by recent emigrates deserve attention. Yet, the work itself is so diverse that it defies neat thematic groupings, instead collectively questioning the categorization of the photography as “African art.” It's not a 54-country sampling. The photography on view dives into cultural traditions and concerns that are found in specific localities and modes of experience. The accuracy of that affirmation seems important if individual African states, peoples, traditions, and cultures, are ever to be recognized as such.
Kristin-Lee Moolman, Faka #02
“When people think about Africa, they generally think about news photography and reportage, and this is very much not that,” explains Jennings. “This is very positive, very inspiring, and very contemporary. A lot of the images are about very fantastical subjects—creating their own little worlds, really.”
“Through the work of these six artists we want to encourage people to dive more deeply into what’s happening on the continent in the creative industries," she adds.
New African Photography opens May 7 through May 15. For more information, click here.