Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography

This massive catalogue of the International Center of Photography's 2006 exhibition of contemporary African photography gives a thought-provoking introduction to how African artists have engaged with the international art world while sustaining their uniquely African points of view, whether they live at home or abroad. With artists hailing from South Africa to Morocco, the exhibit is a visceral reminder of the vastness and variety of a continent that colonial history has misunderstood and objectified, according to exhibit curator Enwezor. His introductory essay, although difficult reading for those unfamiliar with academic art-speak, provides an indispensable guide to this work, giving a context for what otherwise might overwhelm or mystify. He challenges assumptions of "Afro-pessimism" propounded by literature and the media that "focus on the exotic potentials of both man and animal," equating colonial photographer and African with hunter and game. In contrast, these artists wrench the image of Africa back from "the touristic gaze" to create a humanized, individualized iconography, while claiming their places within the international art community. From Randa Shaath's documentation of Cairo's precariously thriving rooftop community of artists to Kay Hassan's spooky portraits made from Polaroid negatives discarded by self-employed street photographers, this collection reveals an Africa looking with "fined-tuned alertness" at a rapidly changing world. (July)Correction: The author of Lost Cosmonaut (Reviews, May 22) is Daniel Kalder.

Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography gathers approximately 250 works by 30 artists from across the continent, an amazingly wide range of individual artistic responses to the unprecedented shifts taking place in Africa's economic, social and cultural spheres. In addition to introducing audiences to the multiple imaginations and voices of today's African artists, Snap Judgments explores the ways photo-based art has developed across the dialectic of traditional African aesthetic values and Western influences. Contemporary African photography has emerged in the post-World War II de-colonization movements, the quest for independent national identity, and the effects of globalization and modernity. Snap Judgments organizes the work that grew out of all that into four thematic groups--landscape; urban formations; the body and identity; and history and representation--groups that reflect the issues around which Africa's experimental artists have been articulating new styles and visual languages. Nigerian independent curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor, widely recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on contemporary African art, has included an essay by art historian Colin Richard, an appendix on recent exhibitions of African photography, biographical notes on the artists, and a general bibliography.

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