New Photography 2023 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of photographs and videos by 7 artists, hung against white walls in a series of connected rooms on the third floor of the museum. The exhibition was organized by Oluremi Onabanjo, with the assistance of Kaitlin Booher. (Installation shots and video stills below.)

The following artists have been included in the show, with details on the works on view:

  • Kelani Abass: 8 letterpress type case and digital prints, 2016, 2017, 2021, 2022, sized roughly 14x32x2, 17x32x1, 20x24x1, 20x24x2, 28x36x3 inches; 1 family journal, 1930-1970, sized roughly 11x9x2 inches
  • Akinbode Akinbiyi: 21 inkjet prints, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010, sized roughly 24×24, 40×40 inches
  • Yagazie Emezi: 22 inkjet prints, 2020, sized 16×20, 24×36 inches
  • Amanda Iheme: 5 inkjet prints, 2018, sized roughly 13×20, 14×20 inches; 7 inkjet prints, 2015, 2018, sized roughly 37×60, 40×60, 41×60 inches; 2 audio recordings, 2015
  • Abraham Oghobase: 10 printed silk chiffon on inkjet prints, 2019-2022, sized roughly 26×22 inches
  • Karl Ohiri: 16 inkjet prints, 2015-ongoing, sized roughly 10×7 inches; 1 HD video (color, sound), 2019; 1 “skate-board”, 2019, sized roughly 13x9x8 inches
  • Logo Oluwamuyiwa: 31 inkjet prints, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, sized roughly 7×10 (or the reverse), 12×20, 13×20, 14×20, 24×26, 33×24, 36×24 inches (or the reverse); 3 vinyl wallpaper, 2014, 2018, 2020, sized roughly 75×50 (or the reverse), 50×104 inches; 2 offset prints, 2014, 2016, sized 16×24 inches; 34 videos, 2017, 2018, 2019

Comments/Context: The New Photography series at the Museum of Modern Art has taken many forms over its long history. As recently as a decade ago, the show was still following a relatively straightforward pattern, with the photo curators annually selecting a small handful of contemporary photographers who seemed worthy of wider notice. Over the years, being chosen for this prestigious series was in some sense a sign of having photographically “arrived”, as the public support of the MoMA photo department was an important point of institutional recognition. In each of 2013 (reviewed here), 2012 (reviewed here), 2011 (reviewed here), and 2010 (reviewed here), the show was a simple cross section of working styles, and the exhibit was small enough to feel like a quick introductory survey of a few fresh (and in many cases, soon to be more famous) faces.

In more recent years, the New Photography series turned away from its annual cycle, skipping out to every two or three years and expanding its efforts into something much more sprawling and monumental. In both 2018 (reviewed here) and 2015 (reviewed here), the show was loosely thematic and brought together many more photographers (as many as 19 in one case). The approach put the focus on the larger themes and ideas of the moment, and reduced the attention that was placed on any one individual photographer or body of work. The message seemed to be that the curators wanted to spend their time highlighting the broader trends in the medium (and including a wider range of artists working in that mode or style), rather than identifying rising stars each and every year.

Between the delays of the pandemic and some changeover in the curatorial team, it’s been five years since the last iteration of the New Photography series, and once again, the show has been reimagined. MoMA has clearly been paying attention to the growing interest in previously marginalized (or altogether excluded) photographic voices, and this year’s show employs a narrow geographic angle, gathering together seven contemporary photographers either working in or with ties to Lagos, Nigeria. Organized by associate curator Oluremi Onabanjo (who is quickly making her mark on the trajectory of the photo department), it’s the first group show of living West African photographers that the museum has ever hosted.

Many of the canonical figures in 20th century West African photography (like Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Samuel Fosso, and others) were largely studio photographers, so their work doesn’t provide as much context for contemporary photographers working in the streets of Lagos as we might imagine; instead, we’re more apt to see the visual representations of the rhythms of life in Lagos on view here in relation to other richly multivalent city portraits from around the world.

Both Logo Oluwamuyiwa and Akinbode Akinbiyi use the classic contrasts of black-and-white imagery to capture the shifting nuances of Lagos. Oluwamuyima might reasonably be called a street photographer, as his pictures thrum with the energy of momentary visual arrangements found on the sidewalks and amid the traffic. He has a astute eye for overlooked urban textures, including twisted fishing nets, hanging laundry, and peeling posters, and revels in unexpected compositional discoveries, like a confusing split-body reflection in an oil slick, several views framed by darkened van windows, a ride from the handlebars of a bicycle (while in motion), an encroaching spill of wetness in the street shaped like a shadowy monster, and various other elevated vantage points looking down on pedestrians in the street. His videos similarly catch short snippets of city life, turning the crossing of the street, the carrying of a load, or the action of a painter into a kind of silent ballet. Akinbiyi applies a related visual logic to repeated visits to Bar Beach, where light and dark contrasts animate beachgoers walking on the sand and gathering in groups, vendors selling eggs, and the tactile still life possibilities of hanging rags, abandoned sandals, empty chairs, and sleeping dogs. For both artists, the lively human activity of the specific place gives rise to seemingly endless photographic opportunities.

Nigeria was once a British colony (having gained independence in 1960), and while most of these artists included here aren’t old enough to have been alive during the colonial period, the nation’s colonial histories and legacies still resonate through modern life in Lagos. Abraham Oghobase layers together archival imagery and scans of book pages, creating oblique collaged combinations of blurred faces and texts describing colonial era mining laws, land tenures, hut taxes, and other economic practices of the Royal Niger Company. His aesthetic combinations don’t resolve into easy answers, but instead linger in a kind of in-between state, where the largely invisible facts and policies hover as indistinct exploitative memories that fail to entirely disappear. Amanda Iheme excavates the colonial legacy in a different way, by looking closely at various colonial-era (and earlier) buildings sprinkled around Lagos. Her architectural photographs seek out old ornate arches, pillars, and cornices, documenting the decaying facades and rooms once used for everything from slave trading to postal services; to these she has added still life images of objects found at these sites, including transportation tickets, secret files, and forgotten snapshot faces. Her results are subtly unsettled, the places sitting empty but still very much present, like a festering splinter in a finger.

Two other artists reclaim old imagery and reimagine it to tease out subtleties of local memory. Kelani Abass takes photographs from his family’s 1960s era albums and re-houses them in wooden letterpress type cases, the tinted images divided and reorganized by the small geometric boxes. His works have an undeniable object quality when hung on the wall, the sculptural printing artifacts now fitting his history into an alternate framework of order. Karl Ohiri’s images are more literal, in that they salvage anonymous images discarded by various Lagos portrait studios, the pictures stained, decayed, and otherwise distorted by the process of aging. In many cases, the imperfections add a layer of expressive abstraction to the portraits, like ghosts reaching out from behind the veil of the past.

In the final gallery, the show returns to more current realities, pairing a video work by Ohiri, featuring a ground-level perspective of Lagos following a disabled man on a hand-built “skateboard” as he winds through the dense crowds, and a wall filled with images by Yagazie Emezi, documenting 2020 street protests against police brutality. Both pull us into the immediacy of swirling action, balancing a daily individual struggle (that goes largely unnoticed) with a collective societal response (that centers on a different kind of visual drama).

While a geographic filter for the New Photography series may bring some novelty and innovation to the process for a few cycles (I can imagine intriguing contemporary selections from India, Korea (perhaps paired with a MoMA film component), and Mexico as a potential starting list), rebalancing some of the previous deficits of attention, and this succinct selection from Nigeria will certainly introduce a group of capable photographers to a wider audience here in the United States, I hope that ultimately the curators will once again return to the task of selecting a small number of “contemporary photographers to watch”. Without a doubt, going on the record and making selections with imperfect knowledge is an extremely tough challenge, but this is what leaders must do. The MoMA photography curators still have the reputational clout to impact the direction of the contemporary medium (in ways that few other museums or institutions can match), and I’d like to see them flex that muscle again more forcefully.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of artists included in the show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Abraham Oghobase, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Amanda Iheme, Karl Ohiri, Kelani Abass, Logo Oluwamuyiwa, Yagazie Emezi, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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