EXPLORING THE NEW WEST AFRICA, FREE-MINDED, COLORFUL, IN LOVE WITH THE STYLES OF COUNTERCULTURE… SO CAPTURED BY FOUR OF ITS DWELLERS AND INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED PHOTOGRAPHERS
Text by Fiammetta Cesana
David Hill Gallery of London hosts from September 18 to November 27 “Tête à Têtes – West African Portraiture from Independence into the 21st Century”. In a fragile moment like this were to the global health crisis are added discussions and protests, some of which very violent, over inequality of black lives, this exhibition tells us a story of the past with important contemporary reminds. Celebrating the urge of West African populations to find new “liberated” identities with the end of colonization, as they were living an evolutionary phase amid the desire for new western styles and the attachment to traditional values, the gallery collects the works of four of the most relevant photographers in the aerea: Sanlé Sory, Rachidi Bissiriou, Malick Sidibé and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou.
Their photographs, detaching themselves from typical Africa-related artistic contents much based on tribal atmosphere and exoticism, are also presented with a short film where the curators, David Hill and Carry Scott, introduce us to these unexpected portraits. You can watch it here!
Everything began in the 60s, when, with the rising of independence movements and protests embracing the example of American countercultural youth, West African states, after half of a century of colonization, obtained freedom from French government. The event established a historical turning point, politically, socially and artistically. As we all know, the western influence, not to say predominance, over developing countries today is still factual and controversial, however those were years that marked a fundamental chapter in African history, showing faith in change in the eyes of people. In their eyes, in their clothes, in their smile and dancing at parties. The memories of that time are full of enthusiasm for a world in cultural and style evolution, as Africa started to absorb American subversive attitude, from political activism to new tastes of music, cinema, fashion and art, and try to make it in its own way.
In such context of revolutionary feelings, four West African talents brought to life some of their most remarkable works. Sanlé Sory, who started his career in Bobo-Dioulasso, now Burkina Faso, as it became independent in 1960, was exemplary in capturing the eccentric behavior of young generation thrilled by the coming in their country of new music and fashion genres. Sanlé was the first African photographer to have a solo show at an American museum, the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018. And today he exhibits in galleries worldwide, from London, New York, Paris and Amsterdam.
“Tête à Têtes” presents then Rachidi Bissiriou. Now retired, the Ketu photographer opened a studio in central Benin in 1968, “Studio Pleasure”, starting a series of unconventional portraits of local villagers, importalized just as he found them, thanks to a Yashica twin-lens camera. Bissiriou is now retired but his works finally see the light as they were never been shown outside the village.
“For me, photography is all about youth.” said Malick Sidibé, the third photographer of the exhibition. He was the first African and the first photographer to receive the Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale art exhibition in 2007. His portraits’ collection became a true memorabilia of 60s-70s Mali’s vibrant mundanity. From parties to sport events, he photographed young people dancing, enjoying music and totally feeling good with their new American-like styles. These images of a cheerful youth are gathered in Chemices, creating actual album-reportages of those free and amusing time, and which are now held in the permanent collections of major museums, including MoMA and Art Institute of Chicago. Sidibé in 2003 received the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography.
Finally, the works Bienese photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou show us a spectacular blend of newness and traditions. His subjects are friends, family’s members and people from the street, who perfectly embody the spirit of the time in Portonovo, his hometown. The energy of the upcoming underground allure is intensified by strong atavic sentiment. Amongst his photographs we find two Yoruba men dressing up with traditional Engungun costumes, invoking spiritual ancestors. Agbodjélou is the founder and director of the first photographic school in Benin. Recently, he was commissioned by the creative director Virgil Abloh to shoot Louis Vuitton SS20 campaign.
“Tête à Têtes – West African Portraiture from Independence into the 21st Century”
David Hill Gallery, London
From September 18 to November 27