We spoke with six photographers from the continent’s new vanguard of image-making about their visions of Africa past, present and future
As its title suggests, the scope of A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography is vast. The expansive new exhibition at Tate Modern brings together 36 multigenerational artists whose work explicates, shapes, and reinterprets Africa’s diverse cultures and historical narratives. Tracing these threads across photography, film, and audio, the show spans the continent’s many geographies, cultures and time zones to present a vision of Africa past, present and future that is as nuanced as it is prodigious.
“Given the vast number of countries on the African continent, the aim wasn’t necessarily to ‘represent’ each country, but rather to reveal multiple perspectives on different themes and issues,” explains curator Osei Bonsu. “The title is taken from Achille Mbembe’s collection of essays, On the Postcolony. Mbembe’s notion of ‘a world in common’ is one in which Africa’s histories are understood as part of a global narrative of civilisation. Remapping Africa’s entangled histories of slavery, colonialism and migration, Mbembe argues for the rethinking of African experience in relation to global networks and cosmopolitan identities.”
The exhibition also examines the currency of the photographic image as a supposed document of truth and how, as a conduit of meaning, its meaning can alter as it travels through space and with the passage of time. “Photography has played a very important role in shaping global perceptions of Africa – the medium has been in use on the continent since its invention in the 19th century,” Bonsu tells Dazed. “While photography is widely understood as a democratic and accessible medium, it has also been used as a tool to perpetuate colonial images and stereotypes of Africa. The exhibition confronts this narrative, looking at Africa’s multiple histories and cultures to illuminate the role photography can play in changing the way we see the world.”
Bonsu concludes, “A World in Common is an exhibition dedicated to expanding the way we see photography. We hope that people see the exhibition as an opportunity to learn more about the many cultural, social, and historical narratives that shape African experiences. The exhibition addresses themes such as climate change, spirituality, and urbanism from the perspective of artists who are exploring Africa’s past, present and future. We hope that visitors will feel inspired to reimagine the role photography can play in reshaping our understanding of important global and local issues.”
Below, we speak to six of the younger artists whose work is featured in A World in Common. From reimagined family archives, future utopias, and visions of the natural world infused with mystery, we talked with Lebohang Kganye, Atong Atem, Ruth Ossai, Mário Macilau, Léonard Pongo and Julianknxx about how they make their work and how it contributes to this hugely important exhibition.
Working primarily with themes of loss, death, family history and ancestry, Johannesburg-based artist Lebohang Kganye draws on family archives, family history and oral traditions in order to explore ideas of home and belonging, refuge and identity, while also excavating the history of South Africa and apartheid.
“Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story is a body of work that began two years after the passing of my mother. I was scared that I was beginning to forget what my mother looked like, what she sounded like, and her defining gestures. So I began to look for pieces of my mother in the house, this is when I found her old photo albums and I realised that some of the clothes that she was wearing in her 20s and 30s were still in her wardrobe. With the help of my grandmother, I was able to retrace the exact locations. I proceeded to re-enact her photos, mimicking the same poses she had. My reconnection with her became a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories.
“I later developed digital photomontages where I juxtaposed my mother’s old photographs with photographs of a ‘present version of her’ to reconstruct a new story and a commonality: she is me, I am her and there remains in this commonality so much difference, and so much distance in space and time. The photomontages became a substitute for the paucity of memory, a forged identification and imagined conversation.”
“The photomontages became a substitute for the paucity of memory, a forged identification and imagined conversation” – Lebohang Kganye
“The idea of the imagination and staging within family photographs is really intriguing to me. Photographs are a combination of truth, of fantasy, and of choice. What family photographs depict versus what the family actually is or was are two separate realities. For example, my mother worked in a factory in her twenties, yet among her photos there is not a single one of her in her factory worker’s uniform. The photographs that come to represent her are all very staged, very beautiful.
“My work addresses the act of erasure in family albums as an organic process. The selective realities offered to us by family albums are no different from oral traditions. I am told a story today, yet when I am told the same story tomorrow, even if I am asking a factual question, the answer will be different, and that is organic. While my work may resonate with a particularly South African experience, it critically engages the wider narratives of collective memory through oral traditions, and memory as a tangible source material” – Lebohang Kganye
Multidisciplinary artist Atong Atem examines notions relating to “disparate ideas around science fiction, mythology, history, identity and displacement”. Originally from South Sudan but now based in Melbourne, Atem explores the fluidity of migrant narratives and postcolonial practices in the African diaspora.
“I use photography, film, text and painting to make work about legacy, permanence, metaphysics and self-actualisation. Many of the photographic works I’ve made have been about photography as a tool – the non-photographic works I’ve made have also been influenced by my interest in photographic history and especially the aesthetics of portrait photography.
“I grew up with a very particular relationship to photography – especially portraiture. It was a symbol of permanence in an otherwise fractured and displaced life. My family, and many others like it, have carried photographs of people and places through war zones, language barriers and unimaginable difficulties so they become imbued with an almost spiritual reverence and a power beyond their physicality. The photo album is more like a shrine than an object for many of us.
“The Studio Series was my first photographic series of work… They were made in response to my understanding of the written history of ethnographic photography and my emotional response to its visual language. [The title] references the great studio photographers of West Africa as well as the unknown photographers my family visited across East Africa, and of course, this work is about identity and how we form it, but I’m really looking at mythology and how we create myths informed by aesthetics rather than the other way round. I participate in this, and I think there’s an interesting power in it.
“My family, and many others like it, have carried photographs of people and places through war zones, language barriers and unimaginable difficulties so they become imbued with an almost spiritual reverence and a power beyond their physicality” – Atong Atem
“Aesthetically, I’m very interested in things that are kitsch or naff; there’s a joy and humour in that for me... I also reference a lot of the visual things I’m inspired by to compose my images. The most obvious - to me at least - is catholic iconography. Almost all of my portraits reference Images of saints and Catholic figures in the posing, expressions and image composition. The way I like to pose my hands is strongly influenced by representations of the Virgin Mary. It’s not an explicit commentary on the nature of religion, but an appreciation for the aesthetics of Catholicism and the symbols of divinity. There’s something more spiritual beneath it all but it’s not the point for me” – Atong Atem
Employing the medium of studio portraiture, photographer Ruth Ossai documents the “everyday life of families and friends with their own personal style” while drawing on a personal archive of old family photos from Nigeria and Yorkshire.
“[My work is inspired by] family – ‘family’ said loosely, as this could be friends, colleagues, teachers, sports team, lovers, etcetera – and community at large. My sets are made in south-east Nigeria and are inspired by special effects featured in Igbo gospel music videos and Nollywood films. [I’m drawn to] the innocence, naturalness, effortlessness and freeness of one’s self.
“It’s incredible to see how photography has transitioned through time and to see my works alongside studio photographers like James Barnor… who paved the way and were crucial key innovators of photography in the 20th century” – Ruth Ossai
Self-taught Mozambican visual artist and activist Mário Macilau uses his work to highlight the over-consumption of poorly manufactured electronic goods at the detriment of the environment.
“My approach is focused on the research and discovery based on the consequence of changes with the passage of time, people, environment within the living and the working condition. I like mostly to also work on subjects related to collective memory and the process of decolonising forms. My photographs highlight identity, political issues and environmental conditions, at times working with socially isolated groups to make my audience aware not only of the many social injustices and inequalities in the world, but also of scenes of humanity, brotherhood, victory, love and hope.
“The Mozambican economy has grown steadily in the last few years, and this growth continues unabated to this day. It can namely be observed in the new electronics consumption trends emerging in Mozambican communities. Every day, people buy new or used electronic devices imported from industrialized countries. Generally poor in quality, the purchased commodities don’t last very long: it is as if they had been designed to break. Customers are accordingly forced to discard just-bought equipment and to seek upgrades on a regular basis.
“And yet, even as these new television sets, mobile phones, radio receivers, digital cameras, computers and other consumer electronic devices are thrown out every day, there is no systemic plan to process and eliminate them once they have been discarded. There is no electronic waste management or recycling system in place. E-waste is now a major component of the material waste in the city and it is growing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that every year several million tonnes of e-waste are generated around the country, an amount that equals to roughly seven kilograms of waste for every person on the planet” – Mário Macilau
Léonard Pongo is a visual artist working with mixed media, whose work includes film, photography, textile works and immersive installations exploring Pngo’s relationship with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Drawing on themes of creation, destruction, beauty and natural power, the artist connects these ideas with “a sense of depth and awe, a sort of respect and dignity for the land, natural hierarchy and profoundness of nature.”
“I’m very interested in the idea that our perceptions are limited, fragmented, and that reality is much bigger than our understanding. I try to create images that carry a sense of mystery where the viewers can feel they access a different realm, where their usual gaze can shift a little and where the universe that is created also plays with their sense of perception and where their representations and preconceptions are challenged.
“My inspiration comes from a direct experience of living in the land, and a performative element, where physically roaming the country’s more remote areas for several weeks allows me to create the images. I also spend time researching, discussing and reading about the country’s traditions, and looking at traditional crafts, which all combine to guide me in the creation process. I like to work with a rather intuitive approach, letting others guide me and following cues and inspiration as they come up while walking.
“I try to create images that carry a sense of mystery where the viewers can feel they access a different realm” – Léonard Pongo
“Primordial Earth is inspired by Congolese traditions and organised as a dialogue with the landscape of the country, where the land itself is seen as a protagonist with its own will, and a living entity, with its own knowledge and wisdom. My belief is that from this interaction and dialogue with the landscape, which happens visually and physically, deeper understanding of ourselves and our place on the planet can be attained.
“The project is consciously organised to revolve more around shapes, visual environments, and physical sensations rather than themes or clear narrative elements. I prefer focusing on a sensory experience of the spaces I interact with rather than a mental analysis. My hope is that focusing on this type of experience allows an audience to create a personal relation to the work, and through it, to the Congolese land(scape)” – Léonard Pongo
Julianknxx is a writer, visual artist and filmmaker whose practice negotiates “the space between cinema, poetry and music”. Their work focuses on narratives that tell global stories through the lens of Africa. He tells Dazed, “I like the idea of being a satisfied wanderer moving through the world and uncovering our histories.”
“In Praise of Still Boys is a multi-channel three-screen installation that re-examines my childhood growing up in Sierra Leone through the lives and experiences of these young boys that live near the Atlantic Ocean in Freetown. The film meditates on change, fate, and everyday magic, whilst thinking about what the land can tell you about itself and its people.
“Storytelling is really important to my practice, what stories are coming through Sierra Leone, and how these stories continue to engage in global historical discourse. Specifically, I’m interested in oral storytelling and learning through the stories told by our elders. I’m also questioning what meaning land holds, especially West African land, in regard to world history.
“In West Africa, blue is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolises trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth and heaven” – Julianknxx
“Sierra Leone overlooks the Atlantic, which holds so much meaning and history. The ocean and water play a big part in this work, focusing on what significance the ocean had during, and after the transatlantic slave trade. I consider the healing qualities of water in this piece, the way we meditate with water, we live in it, it lives in us. I’m also inspired by mythologies of Black people having lived and survived in the ocean.
“In West Africa, blue is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolises trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth and heaven. In all, blue represents love, harmony, togetherness and peace. The colour blue evokes the natural harbour of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. It is the perpetual colour of the clear daytime sky across the continent. It is also the colour of the Atlantic waters where thousands of slaves were drowned, left and transported. It is the colour of the crops that enslaved ancestors cultivated. It is also significant as the film is shot during ‘the blue hour’, which not only has an aesthetic effect but is also of significance in Sierra Leonean folklore” – Julianknxx
A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography is running at Tate Modern until January 14, 2023.