via Time Out New York / Issue 546: March 16–22, 2006:
Best known as the artistic director of Documenta 11 in 2002, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor first made his mark on the international art scene in 1996, when he organized "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present" at the Guggenheim Museum. Now, the independent curator is updating that inquiry in "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photo-graphy" at the International Center of Photography (ICP), a show featuring more than 200 images by 35 artists. TONY met with Enwezor at the ICP, where he was overseeing the installation of an exhibition that promises to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Africa as either an Edenic landscape or a perennially impoverished, war-ravaged zone.
Time Out New York: How would you define African photography?
Okwui Enwezor: I am not saying that there is an African photography, any more than I would say there's a European photography. But there is some commonality among the artists. When you photograph in Africa, you do get different kinds of images because of the environment, because of the unique spatial arrangements and simply because of the nature of life over there. These are compelling images in the show that tell a very different story than the one we're used to seeing.
TONY: So is one of the purposes of this show to give the public a different view of Africa?
OE: No. The idea of the exhibition is really to show the diversity of contemporary practices in photography currently being explored by African artists, both inside and outside the continent.
TONY: But taken as a whole, is the show intended to refute stereotypes about Africa, or at least photographic depictions of it?
OE: "Snap Judgments" is first and foremost a presentation of a framework through which artists are picturing Africa. But yes, you'll find many images that contest the familiar lens that has been trained on Africa over the years. I do think this represents a different kind of photography. It is both anti-photogenic and anti-touristic imagery. I believe these artists have evolved a way of looking at Africa that is completely contrary to Life magazine or National Geographic. The show is not about disaster—what I like to call Afro-pessimism, a perspective of hopelessness. So, in that sense, the photographers that I have selected are resisting the images which have been the stock-in-trade of so much of the media's coverage on Africa.
TONY: You traveled all over Africa to find artists for this show. What were some of the more surprising places that you found art production?
OE: I hadn’t done a show in Africa for a few years—not since "The Short Century," which was shown at P.S. 1 in 2002—so it was an opportunity to get reacquainted with themes on a continent that is constantly evolving and changing. In Senegal, which has a very strong tradition of cinema, it was compelling to find new approaches to photojournalistic work. Ethiopia surprised me because I had never been there before and there’s a very strong group of artists working there, although there's no real photographic tradition. Also, I found the very high number of women who are working and making images throughout Africa very exciting.
TONY: Are the photographers you selected trained or self-taught? Artists or photojournalists?
OE: I think of them simply as people who are working with images. Photography belongs to everyone. With the proliferation of cameras, there is also this incredible visual intelligence—a visual literacy—worldwide. People from all kinds of cultures can "read" images. They know which ones accurately represent them and which ones do not. This is a boon for areas of the world that have been pictured into a corner, like Africa, by a kind of photojournalism. So perhaps you can say that, while there is no African photography, there is beginning to be an African eye. As people will see, there is an aesthetic approach here that is entirely different from the way outsiders have photographed Africa.