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Africans photographing Africa

Images of Africa have for too long been the result of cameras wielded by white photographers. A new book from the German publisher Steidl helps redress this imbalance.


Andrew Esiebo, Untitled, from Highlife, 2013-2016. © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary.

Sean Sheehan


Once upon a colonial time, European and American photographers were drawn to a continent that exhibited a sensibility that was Other –non-capitalist, non-bourgeois – but they did so with starkly different motivations. Some came to patronise, taking photos of bare-breasted women, scantily clad male warriors and colourfully attired chieftains. Leni Riefenstahl came on a guilt trip trying to redeem her Nazi-friendly past while George Rodger’s intentions were more noble. Professional wildlife photographers found themselves in heaven and were spoilt for choice.

“Recent histories contemporary African photography and video art: the Walther collection” is not about loin clothed men, semi-naked women, beating drums or the big five game animals. What is of concern to the featured photographers are built environments – physical and social ones – and their impact on issues of identity and memory.

Dawit L. Petros, Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view I), from The Stranger‘s Notebook, Catania, Italy, 2016. © The artist. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Tiwani Contemporary.

Edson Chagras was born in Angola in 1977 and grew up during his country’s long war: ‘As a child I remember finding battered footballs on the street, which I always had to patch’.

One of the photos in his “Found not taken” series (2008-ongoing) shows a painted blue wall and an old football at its base.

The paint is crumbling, the plaster beginning to crack, but the vibrancy of the colour remains; testimony, perhaps, to Chagras’ mix of emotions: ‘I want my photography to be real like myself, playful like my youth, moving like a sculpture, distant like a dream, and serious like love, that’s how I feel “attached” to reality.’

“The stranger’s notebook”, a body of work created by Eritrean Dawit L. Petros, is the result of a thirteen-month journey he made across West and North Africa and Western Europe. He is struck, he says, by ‘the absence of an awareness of Africa’s long history of international migration’ and sets out to capture traces of the diasporas and cross-border flows that circulate around the continent.

One of Petros’ images, taken in Sicily, shows the outstretched arm of a young Eritrean holding up an old photograph of an Italian family.

Edson Chagas, Untitled, from Found Not Taken, Luanda, 2013. © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

They have migrated from their homeland, responding to advertisements in Italy about ‘available space’ in Africa (rather like early Zionists who described the land of Palestine they were about to colonise as empty and uncultivated).

The projects of Andrew Esiebo look at questions of cultural identity, sexuality and spirituality in contemporary Africa.

“God is alive” (2006-16) puts the spotlight on the role of charismatic Christianity across Nigeria; “Living queer African” (2007-10)  on the country’s homosexual community; “Pride” (2012) on male barber shops in West Africa.

Esiebo’s “Highlife” (2013-16) highlights the party culture of Lagos and the way it provides a platform for an emerging middle class keen to express its confidence: ‘I was paying attention to consumerism, ecstatic sounds, style, solitude and tension’. Chagras, Petros and Esiebo are only three of the artists whose work is justly celebrated in this book and the other eleven are of equal interest and value.

“Recent histories contemporary African photography and video art: the Walther collection” is published by Steidl.

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