‘African Cosmologies’ Deftly Navigates the Challenges of Photographing the Diaspora

The 2020 edition of FotoFest, Houston, curated by Mark Sealy, contends with photography’s colonial history and its capacity to speak for black subjects

In Sammy Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning (2013), a grid of photographs juxtaposes images of entomological artefacts from the National Museum of Lubumbashi with aerial shots of the city. Unifying Baloji’s images is a sense of division – not only in terms of taxonomic classifications but also colonial ghettoization, which saw white settlements in Belgian Congo isolated to protect their inhabitants from malaria outbreaks. Essay on Urban Planning points to the lingering impact of Belgian colonialism on the physical and psychological landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo – particularly around sites of resource extraction.

The work feels especially resonant in Houston – a city whose own fortunes are tied to the extractive capitalism of the oil and gas industry – where it forms part of the 2020 FotoFest Biennial, ‘African Cosmologies: Photography, Time and the Other’, curated by Mark Sealy. Baloji’s insistence on the longue durée of colonialism provides a polemic to a biennial focused primarily on lens-based images, due to photography’s historical role in the ‘othering’ of subjects from the African diaspora. 

Wilfred Ukpong, BC1-ND-FC: By and by, I will Carry this Burden of Hope, till the Laments of my Newborn is Heard #2 from the series ‘Blazing Century 1, Niger-Delta/Future-Cosmos’, 2011-17, mixed media. Courtesy: the artist and Blazing Century Studios, Nigeria

The exhibition opens with Ernest Cole’s heart-wrenching photojournalism from apartheid-era South Africa and includes highlights such as Jean Depara’s celebratory images of post-independence Kinshasa and Eric Gyamfi’s photographs of queer communities in Ghana. These documentary works are important historical and emotional touchstones for Sealy’s exhibition, but ‘African Cosmologies’ is strongest when it pushes against conventional modes of photography, challenging frameworks of representation and looking.

For instance, Santu Mofokeng’s slide projection The Black Photo Album / Look at Me (1997), comprising photographs of black families in Johannesburg between 1890 and 1950, contrasts with his important documentary work also on view. Created ostensibly for the individuals depicted, The Black Photo Album provides an important counternarrative of the last half-century of colonial rule in Africa to the European images produced during the same period. Mofokeng identifies his subjects whenever possible, while also problematizing what it means to circulate these images as an art project by including slides that ask questions such as: ‘Are these images evidence of mental colonization or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of “The African” in the Western world?’

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Untitled, 1987-88. Courtesy: Autograph ABP, London

If the answer to Mofokeng’s question is unclear, Jamal Cyrus’s commissioned work for the biennial makes productive use of this uncertainty. In Nuwabic Connections (2020), Cyrus has collaged entries from Budweiser’s Great Kings & Queens of Africa ad campaign, which used images of African dynasties to market the ‘King of Beers’ to black communities. Launched in 1975, the campaign seized on a resurgent pan-Africanism but problematically posited African greatness as entirely historic. Conversely, the images were produced by black painters – including legendary Houston muralist John Biggers – and account for an important articulation of diasporic bonds. Cyrus’s matter-of-fact presentation lets these visual records stand on their own, exemplifying the always-complicated work of representation. 

Rahima Gambo, Rukkaya and Hadiza, Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016, juxtoposed with a connect-the-dots style illustration from a school book from the series ‘Education is Forbidden’, 2015-16, injet print. Courtesy: the artist and Open Society Foundation

Despite quoting the format of portraiture, Aida Silvestri’s Even This Will Pass (2013–14) is perhaps the most potent pivot away from photographic convention. The artist’s 15 portraits of Eritrean migrants in the UK are so blurred that they have become unrecognizable; Silvestri has further stitched in thread atop their faces the route each subject took to London. (These traumatic journeys are described in detail alongside each image.) Silvestri blurs the photographs to protect her sitters’ rights to anonymity, while also challenging the idea of portraiture – a genre tied to biometric capture and identification documents – by refusing to create images that totalize their subjects, in this case as political migrants. Circumventing this logic of portraiture allows Silvestri to probe a system of representation that has historically ‘othered’ its subjects while providing them the opacity to safely share their stories in the public sphere.

Eric Gyamfi, from the series ‘Just Like Us’, 2016-19, inkjet print. Courtesy: the artist and Open Society

In his 1993 essay ‘What Is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture?’, Stuart Hall argued against essentialist readings of blackness, noting that the repertoires of black culture ‘are the product of partial synchronization, of engagement across cultural boundaries, of the confluence of more than one cultural tradition, of the negotiations of dominant and subordinate positions, of the subterranean strategies of receding and transcoding, of critical signification, of signifying’. ‘African Cosmologies’ takes up this charge, eschewing preconceived notions of black identity for a diverse cross-section of the African diaspora and its complicated processes of signification. 

Main image: Nyaba L. Ouedraogo, La Vie (The Life) from the series ‘The Phantoms of the Congo River’, 2011, inkjet print. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Galea, Avignon, France

Andrew Hibbard is a writer and curator based in London, UK.