As go-to references for evidence, nostalgia and memory, photographs play a critical role in perpetuating legacies, and their preservation is essential for passing on information to future generations. But in regions prone to intense climates, the paper, emulsion and other materials that make up historical photographs are organic targets for pests and degradation, disrupting the possibility for a solid lineage of visual history. This has proven to be a rampant issue in West Africa’s Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, a region with an intensely humid climate that makes the preservation of historical objects particularly tricky.
Artist Cédric Kouamé grew up in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, and as an artist and collector, he is particularly concerned with the absence of photographs as historically important objects in his hometown. This realization developed out of his own obsessive tendency to collect anything and everything. Before starting his current archiving project, he would spend hours cutting out photographs and creating new works of art with them. “I spent months collecting issues of National Geographic for collaging,” he explains. “I have this obsession with gathering things together, and that’s how my latest project started.”
That project is a collection of old photographs, primarily from the 1970s and 80s, of different social and vernacular scenes in Côte d’Ivoire. Kouamé has assigned an overarching title to this multifaceted archiving project, referring to it as the Gifted Mold Archive. While going through his own family photographs, he quickly realized that a large portion of them had become moldy. But rather than discarding them, Kouamé embraced their degradation as an integral part of their aesthetic, working to preserve them as new works of art.
He soon discovered that mold was not only affecting his own family’s photographs, but was actually a very common occurrence in the region due to its damp climate. “In Abidjan, there used to be three shops where you could develop film, but when I returned there after a few years away, there was only one left in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of town,” he explains. “I went there to develop some film, and I asked the guy who works there how they dispose of any damaged or unused photographs. He took me to this giant space that had a ton of negatives, positives and prints that had all started to go moldy. I put gloves on and started sifting through everything, selecting anything that stood out to me through its moldiness, and that’s when this really turned into a bigger project.”
With the damage taking on the hues of the colorful dyes in each image, the photographs stand as striking works on their own, making it difficult to put a unique artistic stamp on them, especially when the goal is to preserve them as historical objects. Instead of intervening with the original pieces, Kouamé uses digital surrogates to experiment with new forms, taking inspiration from other art forms that he is interested in.
While working with local sculptor Soro Kafana, he opened up about his collection, expressing his interest in embracing degradation. Kafana confessed that he had just thrown out hundreds of damaged photographs in the week prior – a heartbreaking admittance for Kouamé, who covets those very objects as something far more magical than disposable trash. “But then he said he might have a few more, and he actually did find about thirty extra, and we looked at them together.” And so the project now includes another component: research and oral history. “In December, I am going to meet the photographer in the village where Kafana’s photos were taken, and I will also meet his family. So now, this whole historical narrative aspect of the project is really taking shape.”
Kouamé is also experimenting with the work by thinking about the images thematically, and repurposing their digital versions as objects that can be constructed without damaging the original pieces. “I like bringing the images together to tell specific stories, having them take on new forms,” he explains. “Right now, I am planning an exhibition called Men at the Wedding, which is full of pictures of men sitting in wedding processions. I like grouping images together based on their atmosphere, so that I can start to see patterns across different sources. I’m also taking what I learned with Soro – understanding photography as more of a sculptural tool – because I find the traditional photograph so flat, and I get very bored of it. I recently made a patchwork out of the images and printed it onto fabric, so I can make clothing and other things with it. That’s something I’m very interested in exploring further.”
Aside from these creative ventures, Kouamé sees the creation of a large archive as the starting point for something bigger in Côte d’Ivoire. “I want the pictures to be seen as statements about the social environment of West Africa, and also specifically of Abidjan,” he says. “In African patrimony, nothing really exists when it comes to Côte d’Ivoire and photography, and that’s really a pity. With this project, I am questioning the way I see things functioning there, and providing an example for how to change them.”
Editor’s note: If you like this work, check out this article from 10 years ago in the LensCulture archives, Celebrating Photographic Garbage with Joachim Schmid, as well as this one from 2014: Lost and Found Project: After the Japanese Tsunami by Munemasa Takahashi. A similar article also describes a remarkable recovered archive from the very early days of color photography: Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs. Enjoy!