Identity and Exchange

Ekow Eshun’s project offers a kaleidoscopic view of Africa, foregrounding over 50 contemporary photographers from the continent and its diaspora.

“In the last 10 years there has been a real increase in exceptional photographers either based on the continent or of African origin. It’s incredibly interesting to see them exploring what it feels and looks like to live in Africa today.” Ekow Eshun (b. 1968) is a British writer, journalist, broadcaster and former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. His most recent project, Africa State of Mind, is a large, ambitious book with plans to be an exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles this summer (29 June to 20 September). 

The publication collects a wide range of images as a platform for expression and exchange around the continent, boasting over 50 exciting names. These next generation artists are providing unique insights into Africa, or, rather, they each offer one of many perspectives. As Eshun points out, there can be no monolithic view. “In the past there were attempts to corral Africans. It’s important to take a broader, much more kaleidoscopic approach. The book presents an overview of recent photographic practice – all the works included were shot in the 21st century, mostly in the last decade. It is an exploration of how contemporary artists of African origin are interrogating ideas of “Africanness” by highly subjective renderings of place, belonging, memory and identity that reveal the continent to be a psychological space – a state of mind – as much as a physical territory.”

That psychological state is complex. Eshun looks back – to the distinguished history of Malick Sidibé (1935-2016) and Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), and even further back to pioneers such as Francis W. Joaque (1845-1900), but also back to the much less illustrious history of photography as practised in Africa by European colonisers. Carving up Africa at the same time photography was being invented, these invaders used images to take stock of what they had seized – via dubious ethnographic studies – and also to create a picture of a “dark continent” that “lent rationale to the apparently civilising mission of Empire.” 

That rationale still contributes to the 21st century image of Africa, says Eshun, from white adventurer movies like Congo (1995), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) to “the footage of famine-swollen bellies and fly-covered faces that punctuates charity telethons.” This colonial history and resulting hangover of public perception is something with which photographers must engage. “Every time you pick up the camera you are dealing with the legacy of the African figure,” argues Eshun. “That context and history mean that the images aren’t passive. If you’re photographing someone in Africa, you have to ask yourself ‘How is it I think about what it is to do that?’ because you are now in some sort of dialogue with those earlier images.”

However, this extra layer of thought also points to the finesse and refinement in these pictures, he adds – concepts which have always been part of the African experience, though reductive western conceptions have attempted to deny it. There’s often an assumption that these image-makers are somehow catching up with the west, he points out: in fact, Africa has always been “fundamentally cosmopolitan.”

“The west hasn’t historically acknowledged that when you live in Africa, you grow up with this real sense of sophistication, not isolation,” he says. “The art world is opening up, belatedly, to the quality of artists outside the west. Take Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) – the first African photographer to have a major solo show at Tate Modern – something that has nothing to do with anything other than the calibre of the work. Muholi’s practice explores issues of identity, of how individuals can choose to self-identify. Hassan Hajjaj (b. 1961) is a similar example but from a very different place [he’s from Morocco, Muholi from South Africa]. He also uses dynamic portraits as a way of looking at cosmopolitanism and globalisation, gender, identity, masculinity – many different things.”

Eshun traces similar themes in other photographers’ work. He points to Sethembile Msezane (b. 1991), who uses self-portraiture to address the lack of positive representation of black women in South Africa, and recognition for their part in the country’s liberation. A Zulu woman, Msezane photographed herself dressed as the Zimbabwe Bird in front of a statue of Cecil Rhodes – the Victorian businessman and mining magnate who once ruled South Africa (and elsewhere). This image works in the context of the Rhodes Must Fall protests of 2015, Eshun adds, in which statues of the colonial ruler were removed. “She is inherently very interested in dynamics of power and representation – how we recognise history, point of view and power.”  

He also picks out Nobukho Nqaba (b. 1992), another South African who works with self-portraiture, but whose images are most recognisable because of their adornment of cheap, checked bags. “One of her points is that these bags are associated with migration and people on low income, and they are global,” points out Eshun. “They’re made in China, and in South Africa they’re known as ‘China bags,’ but in the USA they’re associated with Mexicans and in Germany with Turkish people. Ultimately, she’s using them as a totemic symbol, using them not just in terms of the relationship that she, as an African woman, has to them, but as how some of these dialogues recur around the world with different sets of people. “These items are a marker of marginalisation, and these images therefore have an implication of the globalisation of capital, or production taking place around the world – there’s a much bigger picture that she’s trying to speak to and interrogate.”

Zakaria Wakrim (b. 1988) is from Morocco. Eshun picks up on a similar sense of “cosmopolitanism” in his work, and in particular an image showing a red-robed individual looking out over the North African coast. The photograph hints at the paths of migration – and forced migration – but also evokes western art history, in its similarity to Casper David Friedrich’s Romantic painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). In fact, other images in Wakrim’s series depict the same figure looking over the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert. The artist has another westerner in mind – Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the aviator and author who drew on his own experience of crash-landing in the Sahara when writing The Little Prince (1943). “We come back to the decision to shoot an image,” comments Eshun. “These photographers are weighing up their portfolios and placing them within a broader political, cultural and social context.”

Kyle Weeks’ (b. 1992) practice, meanwhile, engages with what it means be a white Namibian taking pictures of young, black Himba men. Africa State of Mind includes pieces from the series Palm Wine, which shows men following the ancient practice of tapping palm trees for sap; it follows another project with Himba men, in which Weeks set up a portrait studio which allowed them to take photographs of themselves “to give agency to the people in the photographs, and acknowledge his own complicated position … His work highlights the complicated notion of a visual representation of African people,” comments Eshun. “There’s no passive relationship between photographer and subject and context.”

Thinking through these complex ideas, Eshun noticed four themes that seemed to crop up repeatedly. These then became the key chapters of the publication – Hybrid Cities; Zones of Freedom; Myth and Memory; and Inner Landscapes. Hybrid Cities looks at the idea of the metropolis, on a continent that includes three megacities – Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa – and includes artists such as Thabiso Sekgala, George Osodi, Emeka Okereke and Guy Tillim. 

Zones of Freedom considers sexual freedom and identity, and features work by Eric Gyamfi, Hassan Hajjaj, Sabelo Mlangeni, Zanele Muholi and Ruth Ossai. Myth and Memory looks at work that draws on and subverts existing aesthetic traditions, and includes pieces by Omar Victor Diop, Lalla Essaydi, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Pieter Hugo, Namsa Leuba, Sethembile Msezane and Lina Iris Viktor. Inner Landscape focuses in on pictures of people that emphasise the personal and subjective, and highlights names such as Leila Alaoui, Atong Atem, Lebohang Kganye, Youssef Nabil, Nobukho Nqaba, Zakaria Wakrim and Kyle Weeks.

This decision to organise the book by theme rather than geography is interesting, for at least a couple of reasons. First, it raises the idea that these artists are important because of what they have to say, not because of where they come from. As Eshun puts it, whilst he’s “not averse” to exhibitions and books that focus on particular locations (after all, he has just created one), he doesn’t want it to be the only place to see their work. Instead, he hopes that by throwing the spotlight on under-represented names, this project will help them take their rightful place in the wider canon – as has already happened with Muholi, and with Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1979), whose work is currently on show at the Barbican’s, London, Masculinities show, until 17 May.

The second reason for the book’s order hints at Eshun’s own position within this project. He is a London-based man of Ghanaian heritage. Eshun was nominated for the Orwell Prize for the memoir Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa (2005) – which deals with a return trip to Ghana, Ghanaian history and issues of identity and race. He isn’t based in Africa, but says that’s not the point. “There is no singular, authentic version of the continent; there are multiple, individual perspectives,” he expands. “Africa encompasses 54 countries! My perspective comes from being of African origin and living in London. I have an inevitably diasporic point of view, but I think it’s valid. I’m not claiming to take a singular fixed view, and I don’t claim to come from some singular version of truth.”

“I want to get away from the idea that ‘This is Africa.’” he continues. “I want to give as much room to the photographers as possible, putting together a book and a show that sees from their point of view. I’m interested in how individual artists, or how I, as a writer, can explore notions and ideas. The photographers are world-present – most of them travel quite often, or, if they don’t, they have an artistic approach and reach that allows them to expand out internationally. It’s not necessarily accurate to think of it as ‘me here, them there’ – it’s more about the flow and exchange of ideas, images and influences.”

Diane Smyth

Africa State of Mind is published by Thames & Hudson.