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Monday, October 28, 2013

Photography: Eyes on the Past and the Present

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) holds one of the finest collections of art from Africa: The Katherine White Collection, supported by The Boeing Company. The curator of Art of Africa and Oceania is Pam McClusky. Recently, Ms. McClusky gave a talk "Take Me: Photography by and about Africans". A great deal of research has been done on the history of Black photographers in America, highlighting such well known figures as James Presley Ball, C.M. Battey, James VanDerZee, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Gordon Parks, Moneta Sleet, Jr., and Carrie Mae Weems. Ms. McClusky's talk focused on some very early photographic links between United States and Africa, the emergence of African photographers, and circled back to contemporary photographic links between the two continents. The overarching theme of her talk was on how people in Africa see themselves, not how non-African photographers and tourists see Africa as a place for safaris, wildlife, exotic locals: as geographers say "the funny people, funny places" mode of (for example) National Geographic Magazine.

The first photographer highlighted was Augustus Washington. Born a free man in Trenton, New Jersey to a former slave and his wife, Washington studied at Oneida Institute, Whitesboro, NY and the Kimball Union Academy before entering Dartmouth College in 1843. He learned to make daguerreotypes during his first year as a means of financing his education. However, increasing debt forced him to leave Dartmouth and move to Hartford, Conn. to teach black students and to open a photography studio. He specialized in portraits such as this one of John Brown taken in 1846-7.
John Brown
He was very successful in his business.
In 1852 he decided to move to Liberia with his wife and two children, which he did in 1853. He opened a daguerrean studio in Monrovia and also took photographs during his travels to Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Senegal.

Urias Africanus McGill, 1854
One of the  portraits taken in his Monrovia studio is of Urias Africanus McGill, the freeborn son of George R. and Angelina McGill of Baltimore. Urias emigrated to Monrovia with his parents when he was eight years old and became a successful businessman with his brother, James.

The next section of Ms. McClusky's presentation focused on the photographic documentation of King Ibrahim Njoya (1860-1933) of Cameroon and the commentary of lecturer and traveler (in the US 1886-87) Jacob C. Hazeley of Sierra Leone. The inclusion of these two men in her talk was to demonstrate that these two men "owned" their presentation of self in the larger world society and were not defined on camera or in books by a colonial message or point of view. These two men were a bridge to the emergence of the modern era of photography in various countries in Africa.

untitled 1959/1960 by Seydou Keita
Seydou Keita of Mali (1921-2001) was a brilliant photographer who came to prominence as Mali was transitioning from a French Colony to an independent state. His portraits of individuals and groups were remarkable for both their formal and intimate nature.

David Goldblatt (b.1930) of South Africa documented the toll of Apartheid on the lives of South Africans. The Goodman Gallery in New York represents him and fine examples of his work can be seen at their website.
Raymond Mhlaba, 1990
Goldblatt photographed people from all walks of life, black, white, coloured; oppressed and oppressor; anti-Apartheid activists and regime enforcers. Apartheid distorted the lives of all these people. Raymond Mhlaba (1920-2005) was a member of the ANC and one of the accused, with Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia trials.

Fabrice Monteiro (b.1972, Belgium) of Benin specializes in photojournalism, fashion photography, and portraiture.The two photographs below are from his Beauty and Fashion series. M.I.A. Gallery in Seattle carries his work.
from the Fashion series, Fabrice Monteiro

from the Beauty series, Fabrice Monteiro
                                   















George Osodi is a Nigerian photographer who has been documenting the effects of Nigeria's oil riches on people and the environment. From 2003 to 2007 he photographed the devastation in the Delta State. He reaches out to marginalized people, photographing them with the dignity we all deserve.

photo by Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo (b.1982 Swaziland) is a South African photographer, videographer, and sculptor. She has been focusing on the constraints and labels placed on female bodies and self-image.

And the last, but not least, photographer featured in Ms. McClusky's talk is Yinka Shonibare (b.1962), the British-Nigerian artist who delves into identity issues, colonial and post-colonial issues, and the effects/impacts of globalization.
Odile and Odette, Yinka Shonibare
He creates amazing tableaux, often inserting himself into historical or cultural vignettes which results in the viewer having to ask all sorts of potentially troubling questions. For those who know the ballet Swan Lake, this photo is a very interesting version of Odette/Odile!

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating article! Next time I'm at SAM, I'll make sure to more thoroughly see their collection relating to Africa.

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