One of the highlights of my trip to the Netherlands in July 2022 was viewing a series of photo narratives that formed part of the presentation “World Press Photo: Through the Lens of Contemporary Photographers from Africa,” exhibited at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam (24 June 2021 to 08 January 2023), and curated in partnership with the National Museum of World Cultures.
Positioned at the northern end of the first floor to create a contemporary connection with historical images, artefacts and artworks in the museum’s permanent collection – themed, “Our Colonial Inheritance” – this temporary exhibition provided opportunities to review, listen to, and contemplate present-day perspectives on African lived experiences, seen through the lenses of sixteen, 21st century photo journalists, photographic artists and visual documentarians with both direct and diasporic connections to eleven countries across continental Africa.
Below is a sample of 14 images selected from the oeuvres of five of the sixteen featured photographers: Noncedo Gxekwa (South Africa), Nada Harib (Libya), Tracy Keza (Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa), Ayobami Ogungbe (Nigeria), and Fethi Sahraoui (Algeria). These works represent just a fraction of more than 600 photographers’ contributions to the African Photojournalism Database (APJD) – an extensive image dataset drawn from 37 African countries.
A core purpose of the database, as well as the exhibition, is to provide opportunities for established and emerging contemporary lens-based artists from the continent to self-define and offer nuanced perspectives on diverse African identities throughout all its regions, nation states and cultural communities.
“Hijabs and Hoodies,” by Tracy Keza
To the right of the exhibition’s central entrance was a presentation of six portraits taken in 2017 – titled “Hijabs and Hoodies,” by the Kenyan-born, USA-based photographer and filmmaker Tracy Keza.
As a documentary photographer and lens-based multimedia artist, who was raised in Kenya and also lived in Rwanda and South Africa prior to moving to the USA, Tracy Keza’s oeuvre focuses on the creation of powerful, close-up, single-figure portraiture of sitters with African heritage. Her assemblage enables viewers to connect with aspects of the sitters’ personalities, identities, and life stories through the very direct eye-contact of the larger-than-life-size, centrally-positioned, self-styled headshots of her participants – printed and displayed in black and white.
“Hijabs and Hoodies” originally started out in 2017 as part of a broader project examining intersections of Blackness, Muslim identities and diasporic life experience in the USA for people of colour within Tracy Keza’s friendship network. Importantly, this type of storytelling provided space for the artist and the sitters to respond to their shared experiences of challenging anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, wider aspects of structural discrimination, racialised stereotyping, othering, marginalisation and religious injustice. These quotidian encounters with negativity and the countering of falsehoods as visible minorities is something that seeps into every aspect of life, so needs to be counteracted from positions of strength, resilience, inner fortitude and solidarity. Reflecting on her initial conceptualisation and ongoing aim for the project, Tracy Keza states:
“I first created the project out of my frustration witnessing the global immigration crisis, racial and religious profiling, police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. My goal is to keep travelling with this portrait initiative so as to counter violence with images of real people standing strong in solidarity with one another and resisting dangerous stereotypes.”Tracy Keza, Photographer, Filmmaker and Multimedia Artist
By grouping the portraits in this way, the photographer – in dialogue with the sitters, the museum, and her fellow APJD storytellers in this presentation – conveys very positive messages about how imagery can be used to show respect for the many different choices individuals make about how and why we style our clothing the way we do, the extent to which we might reveal or conceal facial features and strands of hair, the selection and significance of particular colour combinations, textures or patterns chosen for outfit fabrics, and our personal decisions to apply make-up, jewellery, and other adornments – or not!
The arrangement of the male and female sitters grouped into two rows (as shown above) allowed the portraiture to be reviewed and interpreted relationally – as a collective of ‘witnesses’ to shared understandings of what it means to be categorised (often negatively) by ‘race’ and/or religion in the West – as well as contemplating the individual facial expressions, corporeal qualities, gender symbolisms, and self-styling choices of each singular figure. Pausing to engage with these characterful portraits felt like a rich encounter with people I’d have loved to converse with in person to find out more about the histories and experiences undergirding each unique gaze and gesture.
“Women of Libya,” by Nada Harib
Indigenous Amazigh photographer Nada Harib’s tours of the Nafusa mountain communities and southern Ubari region of her Libyan homeland resulted in the creation of a dynamic photo-narrative about Libyan women’s relationships with their physical environments, societal traditions and community heritage, using a focus on fabric, clothing and adornment choices to capture connections to landscape and sense of place, in simultaneously beautiful yet challenging localities. A very arresting aspect of the presentation was Nada Harib’s commitment to portraying the strength and courage of each individual, as illustrated in the selection shown below.
“To Love or Not to Love: A Street View,” by Noncedo Gxekwa
Award-winning South African freelance photographer and fashion stylist Noncedo Gxekwa’s presentation featured a selection of very poignant images of couples that she met on the streets and in the temporary shelters of Cape Town, who agreed to participate in a series capturing expressions of love, affection and intimacy amidst a harsh cityscape characterised by extreme precarity, insecurity and ‘below-the-breadline’ existence. The trust established between the photographer and the featured couples showed through in the way that attention centred firmly on each pairing’s enduring commitment to one another, despite the very challenging and hostile circumstances in which those bonds have been forged and maintained. The unbridled expressions of care and commitment in the face of extreme adversity were touching and heart-wrenching in equal measure.
“Escaping the Heatwave,” by Fethi Sahraoui
To the left of the exhibition’s title panels was a small selection of black and white images by Algerian documentary photographer Fethi Sahraoui (b. 1993, Hassi R’Mel). The featured images were documented over a period of five years, from 2015 to 2019, and showed groups of young people enjoying moments of shaded relief from the intense heat of the North African inland climate. The natural framing within the lens framing, and the relatively low positioning of the shot behind the young man offered a very non-conventional way of seeing and interpreting the settings in focus – placing the audience behind and below the youth to deliberately prioritise his viewpoint.
“Dambe Boxing Series,” by Ayobami Ogungbe
The last two images in this selection were part of Nigerian photographer Ayobami Ogungbe’s series of boxers’ portraits, taken during a Hausa ‘Dambe’ boxing tournament in Lagos. The athletic stances of each competitor enabled the photographer to focus on the fighters’ raised and heavily bandaged hands, their collections of necklaces and amulets, their facial markings and their fearlessly combative expressions.
It was refreshing to see such a varied, captivating and thought-provoking selection of images. Most importantly, the fact that all the contributors were photographers with direct lived experiences of the cultures, communities and landscapes in focus meant that their portfolios avoided replication of the all too common stereotypes and photographic clichés that have distorted how Africa and Africans have been presented within photojournalism narratives of the past.
The inclusion of QR codes alongside the sub-titles and text panels in the exhibition enabled some of the photographers to contribute additional audio-based contextualisation to the interpretation. This really helped to add depth to the imagery and convey more socio-political, geographical and cultural content. However, I would also have welcomed seeing portraits of the photographers, their website URLs, and their studio/gallery details positioned next to their works to allow viewers without wi-fi and smartphone access the same opportunities to follow-up on their biographies and online collections.
Further information and images from the World Press Photo exhibition and African Photojournalism Database (APJD) can be viewed online at https://www.worldpressphoto.org.
The photography exhibition, Through the Lens of Contemporary Photographers from Africa, continues at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, until 8th January 2023.
Title image: Detail from Moroccan street photographer Yassine Alaoui Ismaili’s “Casablanca, Not the Movie.”
All the images from the Tropenmuseum exhibition were taken by Carol Ann Dixon, 22 July 2022.