When A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography opens next month at Tate Modern, it promises to shine a light on the medium across Africa today. The exhibition brings together 36 inter-generational artists, their work displayed in themes such as climate change, spirituality and urbanism. Here, the exhibition’s curator Osei Bonsu tells The Glossary why the new show gives a fascinating perspective on Africa’s past, present and future
This summer is a visual feast for aesthetes in London, with gallery relaunches and retrospectives, installations and immersive shows. One not to miss is Tate Modern’s major new exhibition A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography, which opens on 6 July, and celebrates the medium across the continent today.
Osei Bonsu, Tate’s Curator of International Art, has brought together 36 artists from different generations and geographies, arranging their work thematically to reflect perspectives on everything from Africa’s cultural heritage and spirituality to urbanisation and climate change. The hang sets out to challenge the conventional snapshot of a nation that has been broadly defined by Western images ever since photography was invented in the 19th century.
“While photography is widely understood as a democratic and accessible medium, it has also been used as a tool to perpetuate colonial images and stereotypes of Africa,” Bonsu tells The Glossary exclusively. “The exhibition confronts this narrative, looking at Africa’s multiple histories and cultures to illuminate the role photography can play in changing the way we see the world. It addresses themes such as climate change, spirituality, and urbanism from the perspective of artists who are exploring Africa’s past, present and future.”
Around 100 works are on display, ranging from regal and family portraits to snapshots of vanishing cities and bleak images of post-industrial ruin. “When it comes to contemporary African photography, it is an incredibly rich and interconnected field shaped by many artists, curators and institutions.” All the images and videos on display are by artists who “have made important and innovative bodies of work. Given the vast number of countries on the African continent, the aim wasn’t necessarily to ‘represent’ each country, but rather to reveal multiple perspectives on different themes and issues.”
And so you have artists such as George Osodi and Zohra Opoku exploring anticolonial resistance and political revolt; while works by Maïmouna Guerresi and Em’kal Eyongakpa capture the importance of religions and spiritual practices, and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Edson Chagas address West African masquerade and its role in cultural memory and collective identity.
Bonsu’s personal exhibition highlight is the Family Portrait section. “The history of family portraiture in Africa reflects a search for identity and self-representation that was challenged by the colonial encounter,” says Bonsu. During the 1950s and 60s – a period when independence was sweeping across Africa – there was an upsurge of studio photography, reflecting, Bonsu explains, the dreams of new nations. This is beautifully depicted by photographers such as James Barnor and lazhar Mansouri, who photographed families and groups, often for the first time
“Growing up as a child of diaspora with mixed Ghanaian and British heritage, I have found that portraiture can be a way of rooting oneself in a deeper sense of history and belonging,” explains Bonsu. “Looking at the works of exhibition artists Atong Atem, Ruth Ossai and Hassan Hajjaj, I hope people feel inspired to celebrate their cultural heritage and identity no matter how near or far their loved ones may be.”
Environmental change and urbanisation across the continent are also a focus, with the likes of François-Xavier Gbré, Andrew Esiebo and Kiluanji Kia Henda looking at the metamorphosis of urban cityscapes. Themes of migration and climate activism are explored, too, in an exhibition that crosses landscapes, borders and timezones to showcase how photography allows the past to co-exist with the future.
“We’d like visitors to feel inspired to reimagine the role photography can play in reshaping our understanding of such important global and local issues,” concludes Bonsu. “We hope the exhibition is an opportunity to learn more about the many cultural, social and historical narratives that shape African experiences.”
6 July 2023 – 14 January 2024
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG