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Fifty Years of Photography in Africa at ART X Lagos

Fifty years of African photography will go on view across ART X Lagos, which returns for its sixth edition at The Federal Palace on Victoria Island in Lagos (4–7 November 2021) after its 2020 online-only fair.

Art X Lagos
Nicolas Henry, La dispute en voiture (2020). Photography. 80 x 106 cm. Courtesy Loft Art Gallery.

While there is no set exhibition or curator to mark the plethora of photographic works on display, the presence of the medium among 30 participating galleries seems in tune with the current desire to showcase the evolution of African history, culture, and art.

One image by Moroccan-Belgian photographer Mous Lamrabat (Sugar, Water, Purple, 2019), presented by Casablanca-based Loft Art Gallery, shows an African man dressed in a fashionable blue and white robe with a white bird cage hoop, and papal-style embellished tiara on his head.

He proudly holds a bunch of grapes above his mouth as if he were Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as he looks out to the viewer with an eye expressing determination and pride.

J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Agaracha (1971). Gelatin Silver print. 60 x 50 cm. Courtesy Magnin-A.

Lamrabat’s photograph, a representation of the artist’s much sought-after glossy photographs showcasing utopian spaces that bridge cultural divides, is on the contemporary end of the spectrum when it comes to photographers showing at the fair. The oldest photographs on display are 1971 black and white portraits of intricate hairstyles by Nigerian J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere showing at Paris-based Magnin-A.

Notable contemporary works include Nuits Balnéaires’s dreamy images of the life and landscape of the Ivory Coast at Lagos-based DADA Gallery, and Mozambican Lisbon-based Mário Macilau’s latest series ‘Things Fall Apart’ (2021), named after Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s book, at Ed Cross Fine Art.

Documenting local communities in northern Mozambique, Macilau’s close-up images of body parts and other elements seek to demonstrate how fragments can contribute to a whole story.

Nonzuzo Gxekwa, Bubblegum (2019). Courtesy THK Gallery.

Cape Town-based THK Gallery is showing the captivating work of South African photographer Nonzuzo Gxekwa, who often explores intimate personal moments in the public realm, focusing, for instance, on acts of self-love.

Her 2019 photograph Bubblegum shows a woman wearing a red sweatshirt with the word ‘Chill’ on it, blowing a bubble so big that it covers most of her face.

Similarly turning his lens to the nuances of daily life, is Nicolas Derné’s glossy black and white images started in 2011 of one of the most iconic of the Caribbean islands, Martinique, at espace d’art contemporain 14N 61W. For example, a shot of two young boys dragging long ropes in the street from his series ‘Parades’.

The gallery is also presenting images by French-Martiniquais photographer Robert Charlotte, including Transcendence 1 from the series ‘Correspondences’ (2019), which captures a Ghanaian woman in front of the Accra General Post Office’s building.

Specialising in portraiture, Charlotte explores the plight of the working class against a capitalist system inherited from colonialism.

Photography, undoubtedly, is a powerful art form able to capture societal and cultural change. While ART X Lagos’ return marks its largest ever edition, this isn’t just a comeback from Covid-19.

Nicolas Derné, Shook it up!, from the series 'Parades' (2019). Lambda black and white silver print on Baryté NB paper.60 x 40 cm. Courtesy espace d'art contemporain 14N 61W.

In October 2020, the fair was disrupted by the violent response to the #EndSARS protests in Lagos, seeking to put an end to the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the Nigerian police force unit established in 1984 to fight armed robbery but has since terrorised Nigerian citizens.

ART X Lagos adapted by commemorating the protests with an online exhibition last December that featured works by more than 100 artists, filmmakers, protestors, and photographers, many of whom were on the frontlines.

‘Photography is an inherently democratic art form—as we demonstrated with our 2020 ART X Lagos Special Project, New Nigeria Studios,’ fair director Tokini Peterside told Ocula Magazine. ‘The images were taken by a generation of photographers who, like so many on the continent, are able to hone their innate ability to capture or stage an iconic moment.’

Nicolas Henry, Reflets de ciel, Hereros, Namibie (2019). Photography. 80 x 106 cm. Courtesy Loft Art Gallery.

The act of exhibiting in Lagos also enables artists from the continent but based abroad to re-engage with Africa and its art scenes. Mous Lamrabat, who has visited Lagos once, felt that Nigerian artists have their own ‘hustle’, producing works without having to look to the outside world.

‘Everything seems to happen from inside, which was wonderful to see, and it inspired me to work more on my own photographs back home.’

Perhaps an unlikely showing, given he is not originally from the continent, is French photographer Nicolas Henry, included in Loft Art Gallery’s booth, though Henry has travelled throughout Africa, documenting the Rwandan Genocide tribunals at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established in Arusha, Tanzania, and various Médecin du Monde’s A.I.D.S. missions.

Gallery director Yasmine Berrada said she was immediately moved by Henry’s work. The works on show at ART X Lagos were taken in 2020 and include Reflets de ciel, Hereros, Namibie (Reflections of the Sky, Hereros, Nambia) (2019): a portrait of the Hereros, a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting parts of Southern Africa.

Nuits Balnéaires, Adahonlin 1, The Power of Alliances (2021). Photography. 120 x 80 cm. Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art.

‘Africa is like a cradle for civilisations, and I thought it was important to show the work of an artist, regardless of his nationality, who is interested in showing the humanity of the world,’ notes Berrada. Why not show a photographer like this in Art X Lagos, which showcases works from different cultures and countries from Africa and the diaspora? As Berrada notes, the fair serves ‘as a crossroads between Africa and the world in Lagos.’—[O]

Article originally written by Rebecca Anne Proctor for Ocula

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