Staged Realities:
The studio in African photography 1870-2004

24 March - 8 May 2004

The exhibition juxtaposes photography taken in the studio tradition in (mostly) sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th-century by European photographers with those images taken in this tradition (mostly) in Africa from the 1950s through to the present day. The selection of images contrasts an ethnographic and pre-conceived perception of African people, entrenched by colonialism, and a very different vibrant and individuated view generated by African photographers who have repositioned the practice of studio photography.

Various portrait formats are examined: individual portraits, self portraits, studio portraits using misé en scené, group portraits in the field and studio and portraits using traditional mother and child and reclining figure formats. The photographic studios in sub-Saharan Africa were instrumental in reclaiming the photographic image and reflecting an African identity constructed by Africans for Africans. The studio became a stage or magical space on which to project and enact episodes of fantasy and personal story telling. The sitters are no longer subjects but become collaborators and performers. A specific image is created through the careful selection of garments, hair styles and props which reflect how the sitters see themselves and how they wish to be perceived by others. Not only do these portraits project individual dreams and desires but they also establish these individuals as ordinary people with everyday aspirations.

The exhibition is structured around five themes - Family Ties, Composure, Coercion to Celebration, Exposing the Body, and Constructing Power. The threads between the historical and the contemporary images within each category reveal a complex and continuous tradition that has seldom been explored in a Pan-African context. The thematic structure allows interesting juxtapositions outside the usual divisions geographic or chronological lines which have characterized studies and exhibitions in the genre.

The late 19th-century and early 20th-century photographs in this exhibition have been collected over the years by Michael Graham- Stewart from collections in Britain and Europe. His long-standing interest in early photography from the African continent extends from studio images, such as these, through to the ethnographic studies, missionary albums and those taken by the European travellers in the late decades of the 19th century.

The exhibition is work in progress for a show that will be developed for the BildMuseet in Umeå, Sweden for 2005. Aspects of the selection will be expanded in the next few months, for example, East and West Africa tend to be under-represented, and in terms of historic photographs there are a disproportionate number of southern Africa (except in the field of Constructing Power).

In the current global environment, the quest for self determination through the exploration of personal identity continues in the work of many contemporary photographers with African roots who either live in Africa or various parts of the Diaspora.

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Family Ties


Exposing the Body

Constructing Power

From Coercion to Celebration
2003 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.