African Spirits @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 23 artists/photographers/studios, variously framed and matted, and hung in the East and West galleries, as well as the smaller viewing room and hallway jewel box.

The following artists/photographers/studios have been included in the show, with the details of the works on view as background:

  • Studio Degbava: 13 gelatin silver prints, date unknown, 1974, 1979, each sized roughly 5×4, 10×8, 15×11, 16×12 inches (or reverse), unique
  • Studio Photo Edekpe: 2 gelatin silver prints (1 with negative holder), date unknown, 1975, sized roughly 5×4 inches, unique
  • Samuel Fosso: 12 gelatin silver prints, 1975-1978/later, each sized roughly 20×20 inches, in editions of 12
  • Seydou Keïta: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1949-1952/later, 1959/later, sized roughly 23×19, 15×22 inches, in open editions
  • Oumar Ly: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1963-1978/later, sized roughly 12×12 inches, in open editions
  • Hamidou Maiga: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1962/later, 1963/later, 1973/later, sized roughly 14×10, 13×11, 11×11 inches, in modern editions of 15+3AP
  • J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: 13 gelatin silver prints, 1963-1975, each sized roughly 24×20 inches, in modern editions of 10
  • Félicien Rodriguez: 5 gelatin silver prints, date unknown, sized roughly 5×4, 5×3, 4×3 inches, unique
  • Roka Studio: 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, c1960s-1970s, each sized roughly 3×4 inches, unique
  • Malick Sidibé: 11 gelatin silver prints, 1966/later, 1972/later, 1974, 1975, 1979/later, each sized roughly 17×17, 5×3, 5×4 inches, modern prints in open editions, vintage unique, 1 set of 23 gelatin silver prints mounted on paper, 1969, sized overall 13×19 inches, unique, 1 set of 26 gelatin silver prints mounted on paper, 1968, sized overall 14×20 inches, unique
  • Tijani Àdìgún Sitou: 1 inkjet print, date unknown/later, sized roughly 12×12 inches, in an open edition
  • Sanlé Sory: 18 gelatin silver prints, date unknown, 1966/later, 1969/later, 1970/later, 1973/later, 1976/later, 1978/later, sized roughly 24×20, 20×16, 5×4, 5×7 (or reverse) inches, modern prints in editions of 10+3AP, 15+5AP, vintage unique
  • Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou: 3 c-prints, 2012, 2018, sized roughly 59×40, 20×13 inches, in editions of 6+2AP and 10+2AP
  • Martina Bacigalupo: 1 set of 6 found color prints, 2013, each sized roughly 6×4 inches, unique
  • Mohamed Bourouissa: 1 digital c-print, 2005, sized roughly 35×47 inches, in an edition of 10
  • Nathalie Boutté: 1 collage of Japanese paper, ink, 2019, sized roughly 32×21 inches, unique
  • Delphine Diallo: 1 archival pigment print, 2016, sized roughly 29×19 inches, in an edition of 8
  • Hassan Hajjaj: 1 metallic Lambda print on Dibond in wooden frame with Pepsi and Coca-Cola cans, 2009, sized roughly 29×42 inches, in an edition of 5, 2 metallic Lambda prints on Dibond in wooden frame with HH Butterfly Tea boxes or HH Green Tea boxes cans, 20016, 2017, each sized roughly 44×30 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • Pieter Hugo: 1 digital c-print, 2013, sized roughly 41×32 inches, in an edition of 9+2AP
  • Kyle Meyer: 1 archival pigment print hand wove with wax print fabric, 2019, sized roughly 54×36 inches, unique
  • Zanele Muholi: 1 gelatin silver print, 2016, sized roughly 32×22 inches, in an edition of 8, 1 beads on string, wooden panel (with Morgan Mahape), 2019, sized roughly 84×60, in an edition of 2+1AP
  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya: 1 archival pigment print, 2016, sized 51×34 inches, in an edition of 5

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: A low key summer group show is often a vehicle for a gallery to feature the work of a selection of artists from its own stable. Whether the show employs a one-from-each method or a common thematic or subject matter construct, the results are typically predictable – the organizing principle is light, and the connections between the works on view are similarly airy.

The current group show at Yossi Milo Gallery has at its foundation a version of this familiar summer template – five gallery artists (Sory, Boutté, Hugo, Meyer, and Hajjaj) can all be loosely tied together by geography. But instead of filling out the rest of the exhibit with an easy grab bag of photographers from Africa, the gallery has smartly constructed a more nuanced two-stage examination of African portraiture, with the work of its own artists carefully surrounded by that of plenty of others, both known and unknown. What’s clever about this approach is that it creates a sophisticated historical context for all of the work on view, giving the gallery’s own artists an opportunity to open up visual dialogues with those who have traveled similar aesthetic pathways.

While the show is hung as a rhythmic back and forth between old and new, the works can essentially be separated into two chronological buckets – images made between the 1950s and the 1980s (and before the most famous African studio portraitists were rediscovered by the West) and contemporary images made recently, which often stand on the artistic shoulders of their forefathers. Aside from a few South African photographers and another few from elsewhere who tangentially connect to the broader theme being investigated, the group is largely made up of photographers from West Africa (Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo) and its immediate neighbors to the North and South (Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon).

Such a show would not be complete without the presence of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, and they are both indeed found here, anchoring the selection of early works (mostly as modern prints). And while their mastery of the studio portrait genre is clear, the aesthetic patterns and commonalities found in the work of the other studios of the time (in different countries) are hard to miss – almost regardless of the location, the push and pull between tradition and modernity centers the ongoing effort to define personal identity. Elders consistently sit stoically in traditional garb and children wear their best whites for milestone moments, the desire to document important memories and life rituals driving many of the visits to the local photography studio.

Many more of the images gathered here have young people as their subject, and it is here that we see more clearly the impulse to craft identity. And it wasn’t just Keïta and Sidibé who used modern props, patterned backdrops, and funky fashions to help sitters find themselves – these prints show that this was happening all over the continent at that time. Sanlé Sory captures young men with a telephone and another wearing a Yankees jersey, Hamidou Maiga stages a man getting measured for a dapper new suit, Studio Degbava documents a  swaggering entourage of young men, a man in a sleek pairing of denim bell bottoms and shirt, and a woman reclining like an odalisque, and Roka Studio watches as a man acrobatically (and elegantly) wrestles with a bicycle. While the bold faced masters we already know were arguably consistently better at synthesizing and refining their compositions, the best work of these others attests to a broad groundswell of thinking about image making and identity.

When we jump forward to the contemporary works, the interwoven links to the past are much more evident. Zanele Muholi’s intense self-portraits with her hair adorned with metals pins and foam sponges connect back to Samuel Fosso’s inventive self-portraits and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s typological studies of elaborate Nigerian hairstyles. Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s use of camouflage patterns and fake flowers finds echoes with the previous era of bold West African wax print fabrics and unlikely studio props (Fosso held flowers too). Hassan Hajjaj’s works celebrate a physical connection to commercial culture (a soda can providing the same aspirational association as an album cover), and Delphine Diallo’s man with lime green hair and a hot pink bathrobe turns the identity-based styling of the 1960s and 1970s up a notch or two. The show makes a persuasive argument for deeply rooted photographic thinking, where ideas are constantly being recycled and reworked for a new age.

While enlarged modern prints have undeniably changed the way we now experience the highlights of mid-century African studio portraiture, the many vintage prints here recall a more intimate exchange between photographer and sitter. One image by Studio Degbava captures a woman in a traditional dress with her head thrown back either widely smiling or laughing – it is full of exuberant, contagious joy, and the small size of the browned vintage print forces us into a much more personal and authentic experience of that singular moment. The big new prints may be easier to see (and sell), but there is still plenty of magic to be discovered in the rarer vintage works. They have an unquestioned presence as artifacts from the past, and as seen here, that vein of vital energy pulsates all the way forward to the artists of today.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are variously priced between $1000 and $28000, with some already sold, on hold, not available, or POR. Since this a group show with a large number of included artists/photographers, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Delphine Diallo, Félicien Rodriguez, Hamidou Maiga, Hassan Hajjaj, J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Kyle Meyer, Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Malick Sidibé, Martina Bacigalupo, Mohamed Bourouissa, Nathalie Boutté, Oumar Ly, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Pieter Hugo, Roka Studio, Samuel Fosso, Sanlé Sory, Seydou Keïta, Studio Degbava, Studio Photo Edekpe, Tijani Àdìgún Sitou, Zanele Muholi, Yossi Milo Gallery

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