Ojeikere, Others Celebrate West African Photography
Excerpt from the curatorial notes says the exhibition presents one hundred years of portrait photography in West Africa through nearly eighty photographs taken between the 1870s and the 1970s. Perhaps being shown for the first time, some of the works “are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s Visual Resource Archives in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs.”
Not just exhibition of photography in the traditional kind of display, but with the installation as well. The installation, a statement says seeks to expand our understanding of West African portrait photography by rendering the broad variety of these practices and aesthetics.
The curatorial statement adds: “It juxtaposes photographs, postcards, real photo postcards, and original negatives taken both inside and outside the studio by amateur and professional photographers active from Senegal to Cameroon and from Mali to Gabon.
“These photographers explored the possibilities of their medium, developing a rich aesthetic vocabulary through compelling self-portraits, staged images against painted backdrops or open landscapes, and casual snapshots of leisurely times.
Regardless of their unique place in the history of photography in West Africa—from the formality of the earlier studio poses to the theatricality of Fosso’s fantasies—the sitter’s self-assured and unabashed presence fully engages the viewer.
Photography allowed artists and patrons alike to express their articulation of what modernity looked like—one that was constantly reinvented.
The museum tracks photography in West Africa: Photography arrived on the African continent as early as the 1840s. In a relatively short time, local communities adapted this new medium according to preexisting visual codes and traditions of portraiture. Starting in the 1860s, West African, Asian, European, and even African American photographers traveled along the Atlantic coast and founded temporary and permanent studios that catered to the local elite.
At these studios, patrons carefully picked their style of dress and coiffures, and inaugurated the poses that would become the canon in photographic practices. For instance, in the 1870s, Gerhardt Lutterodt established himself as a photographer in the Gold Coast, now Ghana.
With his two brothers, he taught many apprentices and studio owners in the region, including Alex Agbaglo Acolatse. After training in Ghana, Acolatse set up his own practice around 1900 in neighboring Togo. In addition to his portraits of the upper class, Acolatste is known for having documented the social and political life of the then-German colony, and through photographs that circulated also as postcards.