Over the past few decades, a number of photographers hailing from West Africa, such as Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, have received widespread recognition in Western countries. But prior to this acknowledgement, the careers of these figures were already well-known in their own local contexts, proving that acclaim is largely a matter of perspective.
Still, as the world continues to become more interconnected, important work is being done to help talented photographers from a wide range of backgrounds and geographies join in on a more global conversation. One key figure in this effort is Bisi Silva. As an independent curator with a career spanning 25 years, and as the recent Founder and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Silva has curated exhibitions, taken part in biennials, written essays, participated in symposia, and used her platform to help promote sorely needed cross-cultural dialogue around the globe.
We are immensely proud that Silva has agreed to serve on the jury for the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2018. Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Silva to learn more about the rapid pace of development of contemporary photography in Africa, the stories behind some of West Africa’s most well-known photographers, and the intrinsic connection between street photography and outdoor life in many of the continent’s most vibrant metropolises—
LensCulture: In your opinion, to what degree does it make sense to talk about different geographic frames of photography—Lagosian vs. Nigerian vs. West African vs. African? The term “African Photography” is tempting, but we rarely find ourselves saying “European Photography.” What frame seems to have some conceptual coherence?
Bisi Silva: I think this question becomes complicated when the word “African” is used before art or photography. What does the phrase “African photography” mean? We’re talking about a continent with fifty-five countries, ranging from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Tanzania, and so much more in between.
Recently, a monograph was published on a (for now, we’ll say) Nigerian photographer. In the late nineteenth century (he was practicing from 1891-1905) this area of the Niger Delta was not yet called Nigeria—it wouldn’t become the country we know today until 1914. However, the title of the monograph was African Photographer J. A. Green. I didn’t think this was appropriate. Is one person, practicing in a limited geographic space, going to stand in for a whole continent and the entire African diaspora? How could that be possible?
Why didn’t they use a more appropriate geographic term, such as “Ijaw photographer”? I understand that there were practical reasons—such as Google search results and the desire for a quickly recognizable title—nonetheless, such blanket descriptions are increasingly a misnomer.
Street photography has been and will continue to be intrinsic to the kind of outdoor culture that we find in many African cities.
Today, it’s problematic for any one photographer to say they’re representing a whole continent. Every photographer is based in a certain space and dealing with issues that are specific to where (and who) they are. We need to recognize the specificity of each point of view while also celebrating the truly universal issues of identity and representation that are relevant around the globe. Each photograph is connected to the day-to-day realities faced by people everywhere: social issues, political struggle, economic injustice, aesthetic exploration, and so on.
LC: While “African Photography” is a problematic term, is there any way for you to characterize the differing photographic movements in West Africa (Mali, Senegal, Nigeria) vs. East Africa (Kenya and Ethiopia) vs. South Africa? What about regional events (Bamako, Lagos, Addis)—are they relevant?
BS: I am interested in thinking about photography on country-wide, regional, or even continental frames—but I am always sure to be careful with my phrasing. There’s a distinction to make between “West African Photography” and “Contemporary Photography from West Africa.” When you put the geographic term before, you are imposing a characteristic on all the photographers. Whereas if used afterwards, you are simply recognizing that a group of artists hail from a certain region and perhaps are influenced by some of the same factors and contexts.
Take me as another example: people say, “Bisi, you’re an African curator,” to which I say, “No, I’m not!” I’m a curator of contemporary art with an area and an interest in a specific region. But I engage with art from all over the world. I’m not against the use of geographic terms but I’m highly conscious of how they are employed.
LC: You work with both photography and contemporary art. Is it useful to “protect” photography and set it apart, or should we let it bleed fully into the world of art?
BS: I think, to its benefit, photography has been accepted in the mainstream world of art. Before this acceptance, the museums and institutions that specialized in photography were much-needed. But today, most of the major institutions are including photography actively and dynamically in their programs. That means the role of specialized, photography-specific places has shifted. Their mission is now to create spaces that highlight the possibilities of the medium and go in-depth with their research and publications.
Let’s take one example: the Tate Modern. A world-class museum that has some part of their photography collection on permanent display. But it’s not every year that the Tate holds a major photography exhibition. What do we do in the meantime? That’s where a space such as The Photographers’ Gallery continues to play an important role in the development, scholarship, and presentation of photography.
On the African continent, there are bigger infrastructural deficits and the contemporary art scene is at a different stage in its development. Very little public/government attention has been given to photography. As we develop institutions across Africa, there should be the possibility to have both, to complement each other. Otherwise, photography can get overshadowed by the full range of contemporary art programs. The medium benefits from having its own space, where further histories of photography can be developed.
As for artists, I don’t think it’s worth feeling overly anxious about terms and titles. In the end, it’s for each artist to define themselves how they want. There are no hard or fast rules any more, there needs to be a flexibility and fluidity. Artists are beginning to cross boundaries between the lens-based medium of photography, video, animation, and VR (not to mention all the other artistic mediums) and there’s no reason to stifle this freedom.
LC: In the field of photography, formal education is sometimes considered a double-edged sword among practitioners. Some people are proponents of the rigor of a university degree while others believe in “the school of life.” How do you see this debate, especially coming from West Africa, where some of the most prominent names (Malick Sidibé, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere) were largely autodidacts?
BS: I believe people need to be given the choice, whether they want to go through a formal education or if they want to be autodidact. Both paths are valid, but also both paths need to be available. In West Africa, we have great photographers who have gone to formal institutions around the world and we have great ones who are self-taught themselves.
In both photography and curating, I see young people learning on their own, but I see some people give up because they don’t have the right mentorship and structure to orient them. It’s very hard to do what you don’t know. Formal education introduces you to many possibilities so that when you leave, you are better able to assess which direction suits your individual characteristics. I believe that education broadens your view and gives you more choice.
That being said, each path has its pros and cons. I’ve met artists who are self-taught and sometimes I feel the gaps in their practice. Other times, I’ve met artists who have been through formal systems, and I can see how that structure is holding them back. They know too much and aren’t sure which path to choose! Ultimately, we all have to find our own way.
LC: Why do you think certain photographers from the region have projected out into the international scene (e.g. Sidibé, Ojeikere) to such a degree? Is it only a matter of luck, or is there something that sets these international names apart from the countless others who have not established themselves in the same way?
BS: I wouldn’t say they were better than other photographers. There is certainly an element of luck. In Seydou Keïta’s case, the New York-based curator Susan Vogel saw his work and included it in the show “Africa Explores” in 1991. At that time, he was listed as an “unknown photographer”! Fortunately, at the exhibition, the French curator Andre Magnin saw the images, did some research, and traveled to Bamako. There, he found out that everyone knew who Keïta was!
It’s important to separate a Western-centric view from the local understanding. In the local context, Keïta or Sidibé were not “discovered” when they were shown in the West—they were revered during their lives. They were two of the most well-known photographers of their time! People saved for years to be photographed by Keïta. It’s simply misinformation to say they were not already big—they may not have been big in America, but they had long been “big” in their context.
A similar story applies to J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere—he was well-known and exhibiting in Nigeria, for example at the Goethe Institute and with the Association of Nigerian Photographers, before he met Andre Magnin. He spent many years taking a dummy of his “Hairstyle” series to various local universities in an attempt to have it published.
I believe there’s still a binary around “the West—and the rest.” There is still a hegemony of the discourse around “African Art” that resides within the West. Other voices get drowned out, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. These “other” voices are dynamic and important in their context, but remain largely overlooked elsewhere.
LC: We have long talked about finding ways for the “East” and the “West” to meet (usually represented by North America/Europe meeting with China, Japan, and India). How are artists from the African continent working themselves into this conversation? Do you think in terms of binaries, or do you have a wider angle through which to understand this relationship?
BS: Artists from across the continent are increasingly mobile. Even 10 years ago, it would have been a North-South relationship: everyone was looking towards Europe and North America, largely due to the former colonial ties. But over the past five years, it’s opened up a lot more. Artists from Africa are not just going northbound but eastbound and in other directions; they are being included in biennales across the world. I believe that in the next five years that will increase considerably.
You can see this in particular at art fairs. The presence of artists from Africa at Art Dubai was celebrated. And some of my colleagues from the continent were invited to Art Basel Hong Kong to speak and present their work. The possibility to take part in a global discourse that goes beyond narrow geographic limits and old binaries is extremely exciting.
In 2017, I was a co-curator in the 2nd Changjiang International Biennale of Photography and Video Art in Chongqing, China. It was my first time working in China and it offered insight into the local and regional scene. I also visited Hong Kong, including such organisations as Asia Art Archive and Para Site, where I hope to pursue a longer residency. In the past, the majority of my curatorial residencies have taken place in North America and Europe.
There has been an increased desire to encourage and develop more South-South dialogue, which has already been growing rapidly. From my perspective, the whole world is a real possibility if one is interested in exploring these new geographies—which, after all, constitute two-thirds of the world’s population and land mass.
LC: Some of the world’s fastest developing cities are located in the “Global South”—Africa, South America, South and East Asia. How can the practice of street photography be applied productively to these subjects?
BS: This is a topical issue, especially in a place such as Lagos, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities! Over the last decade, the changes to my home city have been absolutely phenomenal. If I don’t go to a certain part of Lagos for six months, by the time I go back, I don’t recognize where I am because it will have changed so much. Every single area and space has been transformed and this process shows no signs of letting up.
I appreciate the way in which artists are able to capture this change: sound artists document the changing urban musicality through their recordings, while photographers visualize these transformations in a wide variety of ways. They’re using the fabric of the city as a means to tell stories from their own context.
What’s interesting about contemporary street photography in West Africa is the transition that has taken place over the last 50 years. In the past, photographers there were not really documenting daily life, but rather setting up photography studios; spaces where individuals would come and have their portraits taken alone, with friends, or with family. However some of these studios projected out into public life, as we see in the work of Malick Sidibé.
Today, street photography is becoming a little more gritty. Photographers are entering into all spaces, documenting different kinds of experiences and subcultures that go beyond the surface of the street-level. Ultimately, I think street photography has been and will continue to be intrinsic to the kind of outdoor culture that we find in many African cities.
—Bisi Silva, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Our Street Photography Awards are open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our international panel of jurors—including Bisi Silva—and for a chance to exhibit your work in Arles during the world’s largest photography festival. Learn more about the prizes and jury.