Snap Judgements: new positions in Contemporary African Photography
reviewed by Bettina Malcomess
The photographs in the catalogue accompanying the Okwui Enwezor-curated exhibition Snap Judgements: new positions in Contemporary African Photography are as exquisite as they are complex. Contemporary is the word - these are 'new visions of the African present in all its heterogeneity and multiplicity'. Given the breadth of photographic subjects and styles, Enwezor's text, more than mere curatorial statement, is indispensable in framing the exhibition. What makes the book so successful for me is that as writer, Enwezor has also provided a new way to read these images.
This exhibition follows on where Enwezor left off with 1996's 'In/Sight: African photographers, 1940 to the present'. This had attempted to reinsert a previously unknown narrative of African photography into the history of photography. Here, especially the tradition of constructed portrait photography such as Seydou Keita's, provided a 'counter-imaginary' to the gazes of touristic, ethnographic and modernist documentary photography. This is what Enwezor calls 'dialectical' photography. 'Snap Judgements' did something new.
The 'significant shift highlighted in Snap Judgements is the privileging of the investigative, conceptual and archival potential of the photographic medium'. Snap Judgements is both documentary and conceptual, photo-journalistic and 'counter-reporting'. What we see in the mixture of work is a shift away from the postmodern playfulness and self-stylisation of hybridity, a word entirely absent from the text, to something a little more serious. Enwezor calls this 'analytical, postdocumentary' photography.
Words prefixed by 'post-' are to be consumed with caution. Can these photographers chosen for their 'anti-photogenic and anti-spectacular approach' really occupy this new place or time, after and outside of the documentary tradition? Surprisingly, the answer is yes, and this is because of Enwezor's strength as curator and theorist.
The book stays away from themes or titles, and groups photographers in quite unusual ways. Sada Tangara's reportage photographs of street children sleeping in The Big Sleep are followed by Mamadou Gomis' collage of newspaper front page photographs, out of focus and illegible. Joe Ratcliffe's constructed panaromic views of Johannesburg intersections are curated alongside Tillim's Joburg, which bears a strange continuity with Haila Elhousy's photos of the peripheral landscape of Cairo. The first few shots could be the Highveld.
Another section groups Lamia Naji's black and white DVD stills Primary Colours, a montage of the ritual slaughter of a calf and various images of women, with the 'orientalist kitsch' photomontage of Lara Baladi's The World in a Box. Thus, photographs in the register of traditional documentary are juxtaposed with the conceptual and constructed: collage, montage and film stills. No one photographic mode is allowed to dominate. The subtlety of Enwezor's placing of work makes possible connections between photographers with subjects as varied as landscape, city and memory, and beyond what is in the frame.
Interestingly, local ethical debates about the work of Tillim or Mikhail Subotsky are lost in the breadth of a book like this. Suddenly, despite their almost iconic status in contemporary South African art, they too look 'new'. Again, can photography really ever escape the 'spectacular' and the 'photogenic'? A lot of the documentary work in the book is strikingly beautiful while seeming to speak in a new register: that of 'intimate outsider'.
Yto Barrada's A life full of holes: the strait project, is a critical look at refugees crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. There are almost arbitrary, uncomposed shots of empty spaces, a woman standing in a cedar forest alongside sincere portraits such as Girl with red hair crossing from Algeciras to Tangier, that do not so much 'disclose' as observe. The book ends with Toyin Sokefun Bello's Lagosians in London, accessing, it would seem, tropes of a diaspora and exile. The last two shots, however, are of women on the Paris metro: a black woman is standing, an Asian woman is asleep. For me it is the openness of these final images to many readings that sums up the impossibility of 'snap judgements' for the whole book.
It is in his considered choices as curator that Enwezor creates in practise what he sets out to theorise: a new and open way of reading Africa in images of Africa.
Publisher: International Center of Photography, New York, and Steidl, Germany (2006)