Close to Home, New Photography from Africa @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 black and white and color photographs from 5 different photographers, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. The group show also includes 2 slide projections shown in the darkened book alcove.

The following photographers have been included in the show. The number of works on view and their dates are provided as background; no process, dimensions, or edition information was provided on the checklist:

  • Andrew Esiebo: 11 color photographs, 2012
  • Sabelo Mlangeni: 10 black and white photographs, 2011, 2012
  • Mimi Cherono Ng’ok: 1 black and white and 4 color photographs, 2008-2016, 2 slide projections, 2008-2016, 2015
  • Musa N. Nxumalo: 6 black and white photographs, 2008, 2009, 2015
  • Thabiso Sekgala: 4 color photographs, 2009, 2010

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While commercial galleries are locked into the churn and burn of new selling shows every six to eight weeks and museums are beholden to a dizzying array of constituencies, stakeholders, and rules, the growing list of collector-driven spaces has a much freer hand in the sweep of its programming choices. These venues can move quickly, take bigger risks, and most importantly, follow leads that others wouldn’t or couldn’t track with the same level of intensity.

The multi-year exhibition series exploring contemporary photography and video art from Africa (and the African diaspora) going on now at the Walther Collection is the kind of project only a systematic collector like Artur Walther would undertake – it’s thorough, innovative, educational, and the kind of inspired in-depth series that would be impossible almost anywhere else. Close to Home is the second installment in the series; The Lay of the Land (reviewed here) kicked off the study last year.

Having had the benefit of seeing both shows, some intriguing thematic threads and patterns have started to appear now that we can dig into a second installment that builds on the first. While The Lay of the Land took stock of recent architectural photography from Africa, Close to Home dives into portraiture, so we might not immediately see important connections between the two. But an undercurrent of the search for identity runs through both exhibits – decades of cultural imperialism, colonial rule, self-dealing dictatorships, and ineffective governments have led to societies across the continent (from West to East and North to South alike) where the people and the cities they inhabit are both still trying to find authentic ways to expressing their individuality. The buildings have stories to tell us about the layers of history and the creation of a new inclusive present just like the faces do.

Most of the works in Close to Home probe subcultures and smaller marginalized communities that are struggling to find a durable place for themselves in the mix of modern society, and in many ways, the issues are much the same whether we find ourselves in Nigeria, Kenya, or South Africa. Musa N. Nxumalo’s brash photographs document the lives an underground punk culture in Soweto, with black and white checkerboard belts and aggressive guitars; in spirit, the photographs seem descended from Malick Sidibé’s energetic dance party pictures, albeit with a thrashing edge. And Sabelo Mlangeni’s images of male beauty queens at an annual pride event for the LGBTI community are full of glamorous parading and carefully constructed looks, each one a bold transformation blending guardedness and extroversion.

Hairstyles have always been a popular mode of self-identification, for both men and women, all over the continent – J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s typologies of Nigerian hairstyles are just one superlative example of photographs that capture the cultural details of these traditional modes of expression. But rather than focusing on the cuts and looks, Andrew Esiebo moves back one step to the barbershops, finding rich environments full of intimacy and communication. While mirrors and TVs compete for attention with posters of global soccer stars and hairstyle examples, these places feel rich with symbolism – they are places where identities are crafted, where respected craftsmen offer care and service, and where communities are knit together by the casual sharing and discussion of ideas.

Other works on view introduce a time element into the identity equation, where history has stubbornly inserted itself into the equation. Mimi Cherono Ng’ok closely interrogates the details of her life after returning to Kenya after periods of time away, seeing the nuances of friends and family with new interest. Thabiso Sekgala looks at the young people from the homelands born after the end of apartheid, searching for the ways their faces (and lives) might incorporate the complex struggles of the past. And while most of the portraits in this show capture the stories of black people, Sabelo Mlangeni’s portraits of white inhabitants of the working-class Beltrams neighborhood in Johannesburg engage this time question as well, subtly looking for answers to how these families will evolve (or not) as their societies change around them.

This is a show where the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its individual parts – not all of the bodies of work on view are broadly compelling, but when seen in the context of the larger issues being investigated here, they all perform useful supporting roles. What’s more, smart exhibits like this one force us to get out of the ruts of the major museums and galleries to engage well-made work that doesn’t necessarily travel the pathways most of us are used to. The identity creation issues faced by people all over Africa are rooted in unique geographic and historical details, and so it is no wonder that the contemporary photographic portraiture from the region will turn on subtleties that require different backdrops and mindsets than the one we apply to American or European portraiture. That changing frame of reference is in many ways the most important byproduct of this show, and the ongoing series. If we can open ourselves up to alternate ways of looking, we’ve taken the first step toward better appreciating the diversity of the photographic world.

Collector’s POV: Since this effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. The photographers included in the show are represented by the following galleries:

  • Andrew Esiebo: Tiwani Contemporary (here)
  • Sabelo Mlangeni: Stevenson Gallery (here)
  • Mimi Cherono Ng’ok: unknown
  • Musa N. Nxumalo: SMAC Gallery (here)
  • Thabiso Sekgala: Goodman Gallery (here)

The work of none of these photographers has much in the way of secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Andrew Esiebo, Mimi Cherono Ng'ok, Musa N. Nxumalo, Sabelo Mlangeni, Thabiso Sekgala, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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