The claims I make in this note follow from assumptions already stated in Paragraphs on the Contemporary I
The Ghanaian art scene has evolved in the ways it has positioned itself to respond to contemporaneity and addressing its various publics in recent years. To this effect, we can trace radical tactics in gallery shows but more so in the heterogenous site-specific exhibitions — notable amongst them are ‘Silence Between The Lines: Anagrams of Emancipated Futures’ (2015), an exhibition organized by BlaxTARLINES which transformed both the interior and exterior of a car showroom in Kumasi into a site, ’Voyage of [Re]Discovery’ (2015), an exhibition which happened simultaneously at the Nubuke Foundation Gallery and the Ussher Fort in Accra, ‘The Gown Must Go To Town’ (2015), an exhibition of 52 students, lecturers and alumni of the College of Art, KNUST in Accra and the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival (since 2011), also in Accra. For the purpose of this note I will think through the medium of photography vis-à-vis a recent exhibition in Accra, while engaging its history and the extent to which an artist who is interested in politics can take the claims they make with the camera as a tool.
Don’t Call Me Beautiful(1) is a photography exhibition held at Alliance Française d’Accra gallery. The exhibition deals with the politics of representation of Africa — specifically of the plight of the African woman. The exhibition, according to the artist, was to celebrate a certain ‘resilient’ characteristic of the African woman as her existence is constantly berated. The photographs depict women (young and old) engaging in mostly generic activities to express their everyday realities — some of them cooking, others leisurely hanging out at the beach, and so on. Some of these women are also, according to the artist, living with HIV/AIDS and others have been raped but these facts are not self-evident in the portraits. The pictures suggest a certain intimacy between the photographer and his subjects; a relationship consequently shared between spectator and picture.
The crux of the artist’s argument for the exhibition is shared in an anecdote: “I cannot think of a significant life moment, I have had, that didn’t involve some woman. These photographs are both a song in celebration of the African woman, and a criticism of how our societies deliberately impede their every movement.”(2) Apart from the generalizations in the statement, it would also be hard to object to the artist’s personal experiences, precisely because they are his subjective opinions on the issue to which he is entitled. Indeed, his sentiments may be true or not to some conditions but what matters primarily is how he sustains his argument. Upon listening to the artist in a talk at the exhibition’s finissage, he seemed not to be cognizant of some implications of the politics to which he has committed himself. I am making my commentary on the exhibition and its claims first, for the reasons aforementioned on the conditions of contemporaneity, secondly because it was posited in the context of an art exhibition: this gesture, by participating in the public domain impugns the artist’s autonomy and therefore subjects the collection of works and the exhibition statement (the two of which function as the artist’s reason for exhibiting and a defense of this reason) to participate in a multiplicity of perspectives.
If we foreshadow this exhibition with how the medium of photography has been used — particularly in the anthropological, pseudo-scientific colonial project dating as far back as the nineteenth century — to perpetrate primitivist stereotypes of Africans (women, men and children), it opens up its politics a little more. The artist seems to be taking his chosen medium for granted, almost as if it is devoid of any complicity throughout its history of use in the subject matter he seeks to tackle with the exhibition. By neglecting this history, I am of the opinion that the artist himself becomes a part of the problem he seeks to denounce. The camera is a neutral tool; it will only frame whatever or wherever you point it. It will give visual form to one’s ideas, intentions and/or prejudices; and photography, as a site, has long been a battleground both of perpetuating and contestation of this primitivist fantasy till today — for both definer and defined.(3)
Looking at the collective elements which make up the exhibition — the photographs, the captions (or titles of the works), the gallery space within which they are displayed, the arguments proposed by the artist in the exhibition statement — there are serious questions that need to be raised of the artist’s intentions and consequently of the exhibition. For example, how is the artist coming to terms with an implicit relationship between the theme of the exhibition, his chosen medium of photography and showing his work at the Alliance Française gallery (keeping the colonial rhetoric in mind and the fact that the pristine walls of the exhibition venue can neither be thought of as neutral nor innocent when we consider the history of dehumanization of this same [African] woman on the continent)? By using photography solely as a medium to realize his activism, does the artist not stand the risk of merely aestheticizing the politics that he proposes to engage? Is his solidarity not weakened when photos of these women — who he claims are victims of oppression and/or exploitation — are taken and placed in an art exhibition and the images offered to a bourgeois public to consume, buy or own? Has the artist not ‘beautifully’ framed and/or commodified the plight of his subjects for his own economic benefit (considering also that the medium makes it possible for him to make infinite reprints of a single picture)? Or worse, is he not risking the banal effect of merely entertaining his public, by not being thoroughly aware of his position in the social commentary he is making? Also, does the artist not fall prone to the danger of alienating himself from his subjects and their condition — a tendency inimical to photo-journalism, in which the process of [over]identification leads to a narcissistic position or even to dis-identification such that there is an objective (and perhaps patronizing) ‘I-You’ relationship between the artist and his subject of interest?
The questions go on. These and many more, I think, are legitimate contributions to the discourse which the exhibition has determined (particularly so if you consider the exhibition as a site for the production of meanings). The camera, as stated earlier, is not a tool that is intrinsically political and can therefore be worthless for such purposes: with the best of intentions, its functions can lead to superficiality. Likewise, a photographer is not necessarily an artist simply because they produce images. The camera and what it offers as a medium however has the potential of executing its user’s political will or intent with magnificent outcome if thought through coherently. My argument is that today’s practitioner is burdened with much more than ideas and tools of expression. He or she is confronted with a real obligation to think and produce work in more challenging ways, beyond ideology, and this may require him or her to transcend conventional roles hitherto thought to be productive.
- Don’t Call Me Beautiful, an exhibition of works by photographer Nana Kofi Acquah at Alliance Francaise d’Accra, 3rd February – 9th March, 2016.
- Tamar Garb’s essay ‘Encountering the African Archive: The Interwoven Temporalities of Distance and Desire’ offers a perspective on this through The Walther Collection’s holdings of vintage prints and historic photographs.