Art Review | 'Snap Judgments'
Colorful and Clashing: Looking at Africa
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: March 17, 2006
IF Martians tuned in to our television news broadcasts, they'd have a miserable impression of life on Earth. War, disease, poverty, heartbreak and nothing else. That's exactly how most of the world sees Africa: filtered through images of calamity. "Afro-pessimism" is the diagnostic term that Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born art historian and curator, uses for the syndrome. And he has offered bracing antidotes to it in two major photography exhibitions.
The first, "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present," appeared at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1996. It was fantastic, a revelation. Now, a decade later, the second one has arrived, "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography" at the International Center of Photography. It, too, is fantastic — stimulating, astringent, brimming with life — and different from its predecessor.
Mr. Enwezor's basic goal is clear. He is not interested in cosmetic spin, in exchanging an upbeat Africa for a downbeat one, smiles for frowns. Rather, he engineers a slow, complex, panoptical turn in perspective, one that takes in many moods and directions.
In the earlier show that view spanned nearly a half century. In the new one it concentrates almost entirely on work from the last five years. And there are other shifts in balance. "In/Sight" was dominated by photographic portraiture, early examples of modern African self-imaging that broke with colonialist models.
No more pictures of villagers standing, mute, in "native attire" with the sun in their eyes as some Belgian or British or French or German cameraman lined them up in his lens. Studio portraits from the 1940's and 50's by Salla Casset of Senegal and Seydou Keïta of Mali were collaborations between artists and sitters, Africans and Africans. Details were discussed. A "look" was negotiated. After all, the sitters were paying. They had every right to like what they saw.
"Snap Judgments," by contrast, includes as many cityscapes as portraits. It is a thoroughly postcolonial show. Most all of the artists were born during or after the years of independence in the 1960's. They play with Africanness, customize it, make it personal, avoid it, ignore it, bring it to the international table and take from that table, while building on the work of their predecessors. [read on...]