She’s wearing vintage wedding whites matched by the white-blonde of her closely cropped and parted hair. In the first frame, she sits smoldering, looking directly into the camera. The second shows her with her back turned. The third reveals some vulnerability, as her body faces forward but her eyes remain diverted. Is she nervously playing with her bejeweled hands? Is she caught in a moment of contemplation or regret? Who was she then; who is she now?
In the series We might be back., Nigerian photographer Noma Osula uses contemporary models and techniques to create triptych renditions of family photographs from 1970s Nigeria, simultaneously employing the visual languages of nostalgia and futurity. For me, this practice of remaking recalls the ethos of sankofa, the Asante adinkra symbol that translates to “go back and get it,” visually represented by a bird whose feet are turned forward while its head and long neck arc backwards. Sankofa is meant to remind us of the inextricable bonding of the past to the present and future. In the same vein, Osula looks back and remakes in order to reflect on the present—specifically, present projections and understandings of identity.
Though it can easily be made aesthetic and artistic, the family portrait, as it originated in Victorian and Edwardian photo studios, is ultimately utilitarian: It’s meant to serve as a memento, a relic, a template, a text that illustrates the cultural centrality of the family. Its use as such has long been widely familiar, but it has also always been a markedly Western visual method of crafting identity. So, when used by African people, it bears added tensions and implications—tensions animated by the question of authenticity in the context of colonialism. It forces us to ask: What does it look like to be, and visually represent oneself as, truly “African?”
In considering this question and its attendant contradictions, the work of the recently passed South African photographer Santu Mofokeng comes to mind. His 2013 book, The Black Photo Album/Look At Me: 1890-1950, juxtaposes archival photographs of Black South African portraits commissioned between 1890 and 1950 alongside critical questions about their function. At a time when the most widely circulated images of native South Africans were the kinds of classic anthropological images used for imperial classification and social control—the genre of “native photography” sought to accentuate the exotic primitiveness of Blacks in traditional ethnic costume—studio portraits of smartly dressed families and friends and individuals offered opportunities for Black self-representation and desires for recognition beyond the colonial gaze. That is, they offered an opportunity for native South Africans to be seen—and see themselves—as more than the ideas of indigeneity that Westerners imposed on them. “We see these images in the terms determined by the subjects for they have made them their own,” Mofokeng writes in the book. But in another caption, he asks: “Are these images evidence of mental colonization or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of ‘The African’ in the western world?”
Visual culture scholar Tina Campt would likely argue that the answer is both. In an interview about her 2017 book Listening to Images, Campt optimistically describes her belief that photographs can be a source of Black agency and self-determination even when taken within contexts of poverty or racial discrimination. As an example, she offers early-twentieth-century photographs from Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, and Civil Rights-era mugshots of Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. She notes that, while these carceral photographs were taken as and remain tools of social control, the subjects captured in the images perform subtle methods of resistance within them: “Some rolled their eyes, some looked away. Some registered their responses through the tension in their clenched jaws, which demonstrated a refusal to participate.”
Campt suggests a new approach to understanding Black vernacular and other kinds of photography that goes beyond superficial looking and tries to understand the social context of the sitter—the circumstances that led them to appear before the camera. This method, described as “listening to images,” is a registering of the hum of gestures of refusal, defiance, and self-making that exist beyond standard readings of Black subjects. And this shift in interpretation aligns with Mofokeng’s claim that an image’s true significance, i.e. “the realm of the political,” exists beyond the borders of the frame.
For Osula, the considerations lying beyond the borders of his images—in this series and other more playful, colorful ones—include his aim to counter incomplete and incorrect mainstream stereotypings of the continent along with what he perceives as outdated social norms within his country. "I want to project a kind of all-African beauty and show our culture for what it is: modern and bold and daring to defy the norm," he told CNN in 2019. The photographs in We might be back. were inspired by his own parents’ youthful photo albums. By using poses, items, and clothing from his parents and those of the sitters, he not only tried to understand those family members’ perspectives and circumstances at the time, but actually resurrect and reinterpret them, letting them directly inform the self-representation of his own generation. It’s an honoring of the youth (and mortality) and sartorial sensibilities of the generation before his at the same time as it’s an attempt to break the mold set by those relatively more conservative forebears.
In that same interview, Osula described his larger body of work as “a game of contradictions.” The contradictions he seeks to negotiate—here, the supposed binary of classic and modern—concern the same paradoxes as Mofokeng’s questioning of 19th and 20th century South African self-making via Western-coded studio portraiture. In her essay “Bye-Bye Babar,” Taiye Selasi, a British-American writer of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, begins to explain how those contradictions and paradoxes blend together in the identities of young continentals. She describes a generation embracing a transnational sensibility as citizens of the world as opposed to an identity politic tethered to their nation-state(s) of birth or diasporic origin. These young “Afropolitans” are “cultural mutts” embracing honorific legacies of the indigenous old and promising potential of the cosmopolitan new, but never, ever shying away from criticisms of traditional practice and belief if and when they become constraining. Selasi writes that “rather than essentializing the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.”
This is not necessarily to label Osula an “Afropolitan,” especially given that some have criticized the subculture for being overly concerned with the treatment of cultural products as things to be marketed and commodified as well as Western-emulating practices and aesthetics to the exclusion of any real political substance. In fact, contrary to the ham-fistedness of Afropolitanism’s rejection of what it deems reductive and primitive (and “local”), Osula’s refashioning of African identity through the treasured and beloved family photograph is as tender as it seeks to be confrontational. The gazes of the sitters are steadfast even in their softness: The desire for uniqueness is as much a refusal of cultural and familial dogma as it is a loving embrace of lineage.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.