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Exploring Colonial Photography’s Influence on African Artists at Chelsea’s Walther Collection

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Last night Awam Amkpa, an associate professor of drama and of social and cultural analysis at New York University, addressed a packed gallery at German photography museum the Walther Collection’s Chelsea project space, which is currently hosting the middle show in its three-part exhibition series “Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive.” Amkpa discussed works by African photographers included in the show and others through the lens of Europeans’ ethnographic photography of the continent, and analyzed how today’s artists have appropriated that colonizing discourse in empowering and productive ways.

“The state of photography is at an audacious place in Africa,” Amkpa said, explaining that because “the dominant mode of socialization is through visual rather than written media… photographers can be part of the conversation about what it means to be African in the 21st century.”

Drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias — spaces of otherness that resist hegemonic systems and foster difference — and Gilles Deleuze’s notion of becoming — that meaning and identity are never fixed, but rather always in a state of transformation and emergence — Amkpa portrayed contemporary Africa as a continent characterized by constant movement and cultural pidgination across national boundaries. In his view, the challenge for contemporary African artists is to capture these constantly shifting identities and spaces without flattening their polymorphic properties in the process. “Identity in Africa is never frozen, never singular, and always shifting,” he said. How does the photographer capture that?

“Africa as a place has historically been flattened, and people there were flattened into colonial objects,” Amkpa said. “Conventional colonial photography represents Africans as people to whom history happens, rather than people who make their history.” He characterized the camera’s role in Africa as, originally, a colonial device, “an instrument to deliver these people to modernity.” Now, however, African photographers have tamed the means to produce their own identities. “We pidginized the rules of photography and produced a creolozied imagery.

The images on the surrounding walls certainly bear out his argument, like the riotously colorful photographs by Samuel Fosso and Zanele Muholi, both of whom blur distinctions between periods, genders, and sexualities in their contemporary reimaginings of colonial portraiture. Similarly, many of the artists in the show, and other whose work he discussed, play on the strange slippages in time that Amkpa identified as one of the most peculiar characteristics of colonial-era portraits of Africans. Philip Kwame Apagya’s images from the late-1990s and early-2000s of men and women in stereotypically “African” costumes posing against painted studio backdrops suggesting middle-class lifestyles illustrated this notion of colonial and post-colonial subjecthood being fundamentally fragmented between different periods most powerfully.

The figures in these images “are in Africa, yet they are not in Africa,” Amkpa said. “African photographers have inherited the history of colonial photography… there are multiple conventions and they’re deliberately unstable.”

— Benjamin Sutton

(Photo by the author.)

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