Clash of Lenses
Contemporary African Photography in the Exhibition “Time Present”

The fact that contemporary African photography occupies an important position in the Deutsche Bank Collection is due, among other things, to the curator Okwui Enwezor, who died in 2019. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the role of Enwezor and works that counter Western prejudices about Africa and misrepresentations with new, more complex images.
With the war, the images of the old colonial masters were also destroyed. The pictures by South African photographer Jo Ractliffe currently on view in the exhibition Time Present as part of a larger selection of contemporary African photography were taken in 2007, five years after the end of the 30-year civil war in Angola. They show traces of the war in the capital Luanda. Today, the metropolis is one of Africa’s most expensive and affluent cities. But Ractliffe’s sensitive photographs of destroyed tile pictures in a ceremonial room speak of old wounds that go far deeper than the war. The cracked, clichéd motifs of former Portuguese colonial rulers show how stereotypically Europe looked at Africa, as a mythical, dark place full of wild animals, marked by the struggle for survival. Here, the right of the mighty prevails as a natural state. In this sense, whites rule over Blacks.
“To live in the West is to be intimately acquainted and ruthlessly confronted with the evil eye the media casts on Africa,” wrote Okwui Enwezor in 2006 in the catalog accompanying his groundbreaking exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography. He was referring to the photographs that shaped the image of Africa in Western industrialized countries for decades. Either the continent was shown as a precarious region plagued by hunger, disease, and civil wars—a “dark” place beset by catastrophes, whose inhabitants are constantly fighting for their lives and have little to contribute to the progress of mankind. Or there were untouched, seemingly deserted landscapes that looked like original paradises. Enwezor called this perspective, which makes it almost impossible to grasp the actual reality of the continent, “Afro-pessimism.”

With his numerous exhibitions and essays on African art photography, the Nigerian-born curator sought to question the colonial and racist structures that influence this image. Enwezor called for more complex intellectual debates and representations in photography, which, he said, has a rich and difficult relationship with Africa. He likened how others view Africa and how Africans themselves photograph their world to a “clash of lenses,” the conflict between completely different perceptions.

Three years after Snap Judgments, in 2009, he became a member of the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council. The committee of international curators advises Deutsche Bank on acquisitions for its corporate collection and makes recommendations for the bank’s “Artist of the Year” award. He remained in that capacity until his death in 2019, and, through his decade of commitment to contemporary African art and photography, helped shape the face of the collection. In addition, Enwezor made contemporary photography from Africa a focal point of the collection.

This becomes apparent in Time Present at the PalaisPopulaire. The exhibition showcases important African art photographers, including Samuel Fosso, who today is internationally acclaimed. He worked very hard to achieve this status. Since the mid-1970s, the photographer has been staging himself in his “Studio Convenance” in Bangui, Central Africa, completely independent of Western representatives of artistic self-dramatization such as Cindy Sherman. In his often ironically fractured images, Fosso embodies diverse fictional and historical roles. Whether he stages himself as a golfer or a disco kid, as Malcolm X or the “chief who sold Africa to the colonialists,” he always uses African cultural history like a prop room.

Another prominent photographer is Mohamed Camara, who lives in Bamako and Paris and was considered a “prodigy” of the African photography scene due to his young age. Time Present shows a 2012 image from his series Souvenirs: A hand holds up a picture of a young soccer player floating in a plastic bag—Le foot pour moi, c'est dans l'eau (the soccer ball fell into the water for me). Camara asked his family and friends to contribute old photos of themselves to the series, of moments they fondly remember. These photographs were then packed in small water-filled plastic bags, like the ones sold in Mali for refreshment at the roadside. Then Camara photographed the people together with their memories, which seemed to be locked up in a time capsule.

Similar to Camara, who in staging his photographs waited for almost coincidental, inconspicuous moments, other African artists also develop an at once poetic and political visual language from ephemeral moments. There are the sensitive photographs that Jo Ractliffe took during the Angolan civil war, or the outlines of family portraits left behind on wallpaper faded by sunlight that the Moroccan Yto Barrada shows as a symbol of cultural uprootedness. At first glance, the work of the Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia also seems like a snapshot, literally like a “snap judgment” when one makes a quick decision. But the man in the yellow polo shirt gazing over concrete barricades on the Algerian coast also reflects the relationship between Africa and “Fortress Europe.”

In these works in Time Present, and in other representatives of contemporary African photography in the Deutsche Bank Collection, including the South African artists Thabiso Sekgala, Jabulani Dhlamini, Hasan and Husain Essop, and the Egyptian Maha Maamoun, an independent, associative visual language emerges that has long since divorced itself from the “vampiric machine,” as Enwezor dubbed Western media photography.

At the same time, a common thread connects these different photographic approaches from completely different regions of the continent. They all investigate the legacy of colonialism, the unfulfilled promises of a postcolonial movement and the claim to an independent African modernity. Invariably, the aim is to contrast a touristic or colonial view with more complex and fragmented images, symbols, and narratives. For Enwezor, it was also a matter of dispensing once and for all with the Western prejudices about Africa and false representations that great Western authors and philosophers such as Hegel, V. S. Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad had cemented. The aim, he wrote, was nothing less than “to dismantle an entire intellectual edifice and with it a seemingly incorrigible world view.”

Time Present
Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection

Until February 8, 2021
PalaisPopulaire, Berlin