African Photographers Dispel Myth of the 'Dark Continent'

New York exhibit reveals our common humanity, showing faces and forms with clarity, resonance

In his pictures, South African photographer David Goldblatt wanted to show, he said, "something of what a man is and is becoming in all the particularity of himself and his bricks and bit of earth."

At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 139 prints by 30 photographers born in Africa do just that. The images dispel the myth of the "dark continent" by revealing its faces and forms with both clarity and resonance.

As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah of Harvard University has said, "Africa is a multiple existence" - a land of many religions, languages, and cultures.

The multiple exposures of "In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present" illustrate the uses of photography in Africa, ranging from portraiture, photojournalism, and political muckraking to documenting our common humanity and experimenting with near-abstract formal effects.

Both colonial rule and struggles for independence roiled African nations in the 20th century. So the struggle for liberation has loomed large in the lenses of photojournalists. The exhibition highlights photographers working for the South African magazine Drum, which published pictures of oppression under apartheid.

In a regime built on censorship, Drum photographer Peter Magubane risked his life to expose injustice. To cover a trial of anti-apartheid demonstrators, from which the press was banned, he once hid his camera in a loaf of bread.

"If I die for the cause, so be it," Magubane said. He was, in fact, repeatedly imprisoned, beaten, and for years forbidden to take photographs.

Besides his exposs of subjects like child labor, Magubane also recorded joyous images like "Emily Motsieloa" (1956). Known as Aunt Em, the director of a children's choir and orchestra is shown with her young piano pupil, his head thrown back, singing "a top note." The image suggests a determination, passed from one generation to the next, not to be silenced.

Other Drum photos point to class distinctions based on race. Goldblatt's "A Farmer's Son With His Nursemaid in the Marico Bushveld" (1964) shows a young Afrikaner (white South African of Dutch descent) standing with his hands on the back of a seated black nanny. Behind the pair, a barbed-wire fence encloses the white family's farm. Both pose and composition convey the essence of time, place, and social conditions under apartheid.

"A Flashback to the Royal Tour" (1962), a Drum image by Christian Gbagbo, also implies the inequalities of colonial rule. As a dressed-to-the-nines, gloved-and-hatted Queen Elizabeth tours an Accra fish market, half-clad masses of Ghanaian vendors clamor behind a metal barricade.

Ik Ud's installation, "Uses of Evidence," contrasts the public and private faces of Africa. On the exterior of a 7-by-6-foot, free-standing cube appear images of Western stereotypes and fantasies about Africa: lions fighting, a gorilla, a starving Ethiopian baby, naked wrestlers. On the interior - visible through square cutouts - hang family portraits of contemporary Africans who are neither "noble" nor "savage," just possessed of everyday dignity.

Many prints on display show scenes from ordinary life, captured in images of extraordinary quality. Seydou Keita shot portraits of clients posed in front of patterned backgrounds - originally his bedspread.

In "Untitled" (1959), two women wearing ostrich-print gowns stand before a leafy dropcloth. Their pose of linked hands emphasizes the dynamic flow of friendship, while the busy background focuses attention on their faces. "I took them with love," Keita said of his pictures. "My negatives breathe, like you and me."

Nabil Boutros's images of "inner" Egyptian life reflect his training as a painter. "People - Cairo" (1992) frames three shopkeepers within a border of mounds of melons in the foreground and a wall of baskets at rear.

Perhaps because of the legacy of Islam's prohibition against realistic representations of the body, many North African photographs create a lyrical, almost abstract atmosphere.

The Algerian poet Mohammed Dib's 1946 image, "Cemetery of the City of Tiemcen" is a stunning tonal fugue. Dark pointed cedars rise at the rear, while white-gowned women stalk like ghosts near gray-toned graves in mid-ground. Zones of light and dark suggest the territories of life and death.

Gordon Bleach also takes a metaphysical approach. In "Spurious Artifact:12" (1991), he exposed a frame for up to an hour to create ephemeral lines of receding rectangles. Moroccan Lamia Naji produces dark landscapes irradiated by shafts of light. Her 1994 Italian street scene focuses on a dark alley pierced by cascading rain.

For pure formalism, none can match Tunisian photographer Jellel Gasteli. He transforms simple architectural shapes like an arched wall into a hovering, light-saturated phantasm. The effect is so disembodied, it's hard to tell where solid stops and void begins.

Whether political, personal, or conceptual, these photographs frame the heart of Africa as it has not been seen before in the West. Like a picture album of a far-flung, miscellaneous family, the exhibition attempts to define identity at a time of social change.

Mody Sory Diallo's image of graffiti scrawled on a cell wall where political dissenters were caged sums up the crux of this art: "Comrades, courage and patience."


'Africa: The Art of a Continent' and 'In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present' remain at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through Sept. 29. For images and information about the exhibitions, see the museum's website:

'Africa: The Art of a Continent,' a fully illustrated, scholarly catalogue, accompanies the exhibition (published by Royal Academy of Arts and Prestel Verlag).

'Africa: The Art of a Continent, 100 Works of Power and Beauty,' a 200-page handbook published by the Guggenheim Museum, highlights a selection of works from the exhibition (hardcover edition distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc.).

'In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present' is a 280-page catalogue, which reproduces every work in the exhibition (published by the Guggenheim Museum; hardcover edition distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc.).

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