In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 78 photographic works from 16 named photographers and many unidentified makers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space on the mezzanine level of the museum. The works were drawn from the museum’s Visual Resource Archives in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs. A selection of smaller works are shown in a glass vitrine.

The show is divided into seven titled sections: Pioneers of Photography, Postcards, Amateur Practices, Studio Practices in Senegal, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and Oumar Ka, and Studio Practices in the 1970s. The following photographers have been included in the exhibition, with the number of works on view, their processes, and dates as background:

  • George A.G. and Albert George Lutterodt: 1 albumen print, 1880-1885
  • Alex Agbaglo Acolaste: 1 glass negative, 1900-1920, 1 inkjet print, 1900-1920/2015
  • A. Albaret: 1 postcard, 1910s
  • Louis Hostalier: 3 postcards, c1900, 1900-1910
  • Jean Benyoumoff: 5 postcards, 1900-1920
  • Francis-Edmond Fortier: 1 postcard, 1900-1910
  • Khalion: 1 postcard, early 20th century
  • Alphonso Lisk-Carew: 1 postcard, 1905-1925
  • Unidentified (various): 1 glass negative, 1910, 1 gelatin silver print, 1910/1975, 11 gelatin silver prints, 1930s-1940s, 5 gelatin silver prints, 1950-1960, 10 inkjet prints from glass negative, 1915/2015, 1 postcard, 1910s, 1 postcard, 1920s, 2 postcards, 1920s-1930s, 1 postcard, c1950, 1 Kodak sleeve, 1930s-1940s
  • Mama Casset: 1 gelatin silver print 1950-1960
  • Salla Casset: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1950-1960
  • Malick Sidibé: 13 gelatin silver prints, variously framed with painted glass, tape, cardboard, string etc., 1956, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1984, 2001
  • Seydou Keïta: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1950s-1960s/1975, 1955/1975, 1955/1997, 1956-1957/2001
  • Oumar Ka: 5 inkjet prints, 1959-1968/2015
  • J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1975/2009
  • Samuel Fosso: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1975/2003, 1976/2003

(Puzzlingly smudged installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Having been repeatedly impressed by the photographic portraiture of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé over the years (and others from the West African region if I am more inclusive), a nagging question had continually lingered in my head. These now famous photographers began working in the 1950s, and in Sidibé’s case, hit their stride a decade or more later. So who and what came before?

In this question, I’m not referring to the imperial/colonial imagery or ethnographic portraits made by foreigners, but to the local photography made by West Africans that likely set the stage for what came later. What was the progression of influences and stylistic choices that ultimately led to Keïta and Sidibé? If, like me, you have been genuinely wondering about this historical question, than this seemingly arcane but well edited exhibit will provide some overdue answers.

This is a show about small nuances of portraiture, and the first conceptual subtlety comes nearly immediately upon the arrival of the camera to the region in the 19th century. Instead of applying the Western conventions of portraiture to African subjects, the local photographers adapted the technology to the requirements and desires of African portrait customers. This process may seem intuitively obvious (of course this is what they did), but I think it leads to choices about poses, backdrops, clothing, and overall purpose that deviate from European norms. A handful of early prints stake out some of these differences: arrangements of sitters that highlight invisible societal power differences, the use of Western clothing and accoutrements with painted backdrops as aspirational (but largely symbolic) motifs, and the documentation of local traditions with a knowing eye for important cultural hallmarks.

With the arrival of the cheaply reproduced photographic postcard in the early 20th century, the number of permanent and temporary portrait studios in the area mushroomed, and more examples of locally produced photography have survived as a result. Here again, we find nuances; not just the mixed fabrics with competing geometries and patterns we have now come to associate with portraiture from the region, but meticulous frontal hand positions to show off jewelry, shoes turned outward, and elaborate hairstyles, important necklaces, and embroidered wraps conveying wealth and status. Even in the early 1900s, painted backdrops of classical columns or fancy balustrades were in use in many cases, balanced by hanging landscapes better suited to life on the land (used for example in an image of a native man with a guitar); careful identity management and creation were customer issues even then.

In Senegal, 1950s portraits by Mama Casset and her son Salla Casset seem the most direct precursor to more modern imagery. While still relatively pared down and unadorned, their pictures were more closely cropped (often tightening in around faces) and allowed more personal posing than is seen in the earlier works from the larger region. Sitters recline on the floor, look over their shoulders, stare at each other, and lounge with flowers and handbags, their clothing even more representative of individuality and social relationships. In many ways, these images feel like the missing link in the larger continuum of West African portraiture – they connect the later pictorial innovations and expansions of Keïta and Sidibé back into the earlier sweep of more rigid local photographic history.

By the time we arrive at the painted frames and funky young people of Sidibé and the stripped down elegance and visual dissonance of Keïta, their ideas seem like brilliant refinements of long standing traditions rather than dropped from the heavens sui generis. Striped, swirled, and checkerboard backdrops bring a fresh energy to their compositions (adding to the density of existing fabric patterning), and fashions (bell bottoms, skinny ties, shiny shirts, and watches) point to the more cosmopolitan desires (and demands) of a new generation of sitters. The contemporaneous works of Oumar Ka bring a more casual improvised air to these same kind of formal portraits, albeit with a temporary sheet backdrop hung over a thatched roof hut or within a sandy work area, allowing a different kind of customer to participate in a simpler identity creation process.

With a century of context now in place, the final works in the show, by J.D.’Ohkai Ojeikere of Nigeria and Samuel Fosso of Cameroon/Central African Republic, seem to introduce a riskier conceptual edge to the evolving visual traditions. Ojeikere’s towering hairstyles mix sensitive cultural documentation with Becher-style typological rigor, while Fosso’s self portraits broadly extend the boundaries of the earlier identity play acting. Both feel positively rebellious in their own ways, given the history.

Tucked back in the far reaches of the museum, this small focused show won’t likely draw thronging crowds, but it is the kind of exhibition at which the Met excels, given its encyclopedic collections. For those concerned with the traditions and pathways of portraiture, and how those details evolved in the specific environment of West Africa, this is a condensed master class delivered in a single room. Seen together, it creates an effective step-by-step map of the subtly changing styles across time, and happily for me, filled in some embarrassingly gaping holes in my own photographic education.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. As such, we will dispense with the usual discussion of prices and secondary markets typically found here.

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Read more about: J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Jean Benyoumoff, Malick Sidibé, Mama Casset, Oumar Ka, Salla Casset, Samuel Fosso, Seydou Keïta, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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