A remarkable new exhibition showcasing contemporary African photography – looking at Africa’s past, present and future through the lens of artists from across the continent – has opened in London.
One of the largest exhibitions of its kind ever, this exciting new collection at Tate Modern showcases beautifully powerful photography, video and installation that captures the essence of the realities of the world’s fastest growing continent.
He eschews a view of Africa that has been historically defined by Western images.
British-Ghanaian curator Osei Bonsu has taken a thematic approach to exploring the complex diversity of the vast continent through the eyes of 36 artists from Africa and its diaspora.
These include legendary artists like Malawian Samson Kambalu and Ghanaian James Barnor, and new talents like Aida Muluneh from Ethiopia, whose work Star Shine is above, and Ruth Ossai, who grew up in Nigeria and Yorkshire in northern England.
Bonsu has divided the more than 150 works on display into three “chapters”: identity and tradition, counter-histories and imagined futures, taking the viewer on a thrilling journey from the bustling streets of Kinshasa to the deserts of Mauritania.
The show uses photography, video and installation to map Africa’s possibilities in exquisite, complex and revealing ways.
The task of distilling the complexity and diversity of this vast continent is no small task. But through his skillful curation, Osei has pulled off a visual feast, creating a living tapestry that firmly propels contemporary African art to the center of the world.
Speaking to the BBC, he explained how his thematic approach examines how the continent’s “shared histories” – from its colonial experience to post-independence revolutionary movements and its urban future – have “shaped and reshaped” the way Africans see themselves and their place in the world.
The title of the exhibition, A World in Common, draws inspiration from the work of pioneering Cameroonian historian and intellectual Achille Mbembe, who argued that we must think of the world from an African perspective. His ideas are the common thread of the exhibition, audaciously inviting us to reconsider our view of Africa’s place in the world.
By showcasing many artists for the first time internationally, Tate Modern puts emerging African talent at the center of a museum so crucial to setting the global art agenda.
One of the featured artists is British-Nigerian Zina Saro-Wiwa. His work, The Invisible Man Series, 2015, explores the tradition of mask-wearing among the Ogoni, his ancestral ethnic group in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
Her work uncovers the role that masks traditionally play in Ogoni culture and is also an ode to a more personal and emotional journey. “I did this work to help me heal myself,” she told the BBC.
Her intimate, mournful and beautiful images demonstrate the power of art to connect past and present, group and individual.
Another featured artist is Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, whose work Rusty Mirage (The City Skyline), 2013, is a series of photographs of sculptures he created in the Jordanian desert.
These sculptures resemble the outlines of cities emerging from arid desert lands. Inspired by the cityscapes of Dubai and Luanda, Angola’s capital and his hometown, Kiluanji told the BBC he wanted to explore “the idea of emptiness”.
He explains how Luanda, destroyed by one of Africa’s longest civil wars, from 1975 to 2002, was reimagined as a city of glittering towers.
He says many buildings remained unfinished, including the infamous town of Kilamba Kiaxi, but these buildings are “monuments to greed and corruption”.
Another featured artist is Eritrean-Canadian Dawit L Petros, whose work powerfully speaks to the perilous migratory journeys undertaken by many young people across Africa.
Her images highlight the contrast between Mauritania and the Italian island of Sicily, shedding light on the complex realities of migration.
This is just the beginning for Osei, who hopes that one day an exhibition like this could travel to Africa and beyond.
For now, he wants the dazzling spectacle to “inspire” those on the continent and beyond to watch with African eyes.
Ismail Einashe is a London and Nairobi-based freelance journalist and author of Look Again: Strangers, a book exploring migration through the lens of art.
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