Images of Africa are all too predictable – if not photogenic wildlife then war and deprivation – but Nigeria’s annual arts festival of photography avoids the pinching enclosure of the white man’s gaze: visual clichés are banished.
The festival, LagosPhoto, started in 2010 and while the theme for each year varies the overall objective is a constant: subvert the stereotypes, challenge Afro-pessimism and inject an antidote to the pervasive projection of the African continent as a basket case of irremediable proportions.
In 2013 the theme was “The megacity and the non-city”: Africa has over 60 cities with populations over one million but such rapid urbanization also produces the ‘non-city’ – urban landscapes of displacement and destabilized identities.
These are contradictions that Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, a photographer from the Republic of Benin, manages to negotiate with panache. His compositions celebrate emblematic aspects of African culture, as with his photographs of musclemen dressed in traditional fabrics against resplendent backdrops. At the same time, however, the dazzling colours and designs of these studio portraits verge on the excessive.
They distract the viewer and one shot, with a strongman politely holding a vase of flowers, suggests a flight of fantasy and an escape from traditional life.
LagosPhoto’s festival in 2014 was called Staging reality, Documenting fiction. The event highlighted work, by contemporary photographers working in Africa, who question conventional photojournalism by incorporating staged narratives and performance.
Different futures can thus be posited and in a photograph by Richard Cases, depicting a man astride a white horse, the figure becomes an emissary of utopian possibilities.
Reality bites back when a less-than-utopian phenomenon makes its presence felt in parts of Africa. Vast amount of e-waste, a general term for discarded consumer electronics that we forget about once they’re taken out of our homes and offices, is shipped to west Africa (and China and India) and dumped for salvaging and recycling.
Stanley Greene has photographed these electronic graveyards – where ghosts take the form of toxins released in the burning of modern plastics – in black and white shots that reveal what we’d like not to think about.
Some 50 million tons of e-waste are produced globally every year and Africa receives a share out of all proportion to the tiny percentage contributed by the continent itself. A prism separates white light into a spectrum of colours and “Africa under the prism” fulfils what its title promises by delivering photographs of the good, the bad and the ugly.
LagosPhoto, on its part, performs a valuable service by demonstrating that Africa’s spectrum is a wide one. It also suggests a direction which other photography exhibitions – those of the West – could follow: a feature of the Lagos annual festivals is the outdoor installation of images in public spaces around the city.
Such a non-elitist approach should be adopted by photography exhibitions in cities like London instead of insisting that the only way for the public to view some of the photographs is by paying a hefty admission charge.
“Africa under the prism”: Contemporary African Photography from LagosPhoto Festival is published by Hanje Cantz.