Three Photographers/Six Cities at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
By Lev Feigin
As part of the Creative Africa exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents the bodies of pictures of three contemporary African photographers – Akinbode Akinbiyi, Seydou Camara and Ananias Léki Dago.
Each artist evokes a modern urban Africa that’s uniquely his own.
Seydou Camara trains his camera on Tombouctou (Timbaktu), Mali, where he documents the city’s precious collections of centuries-old manuscripts. Islamic calligraphy – along with the keepers who preserve it – fill Camara’s images. His work is a journalistic effort to thrust these endangered collections into the attention of viewers before they are lost in the midst of Mali’s political struggles.
Akinbode Akinbiyi brings a street photographer’s keen eye to the cities of Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg and others. His black-and-whites seize decisive moments, thriving among the bustle of milliseconds and crowds. The images are tense with movement, a kineticism accentuated by Akinbiyi’s off-kilter camera angles. A dark-robed woman on a hot day in Cairo carries a bag on her head near a railroad station skirted by new constructions; another woman cries at a sook among makeshift signs (“Do your plastic IDs here”); a hand sticks out from a rushing bus. Akinbiyi’s work is at its strongest in groupings: collections dedicated to a single city that we experience like frames of moving film. His arrangements speed up our perception, not allowing us to linger, but leaving us jostled by many frenetic disjunctions.
Ananias Léki Dago’s stark, haunting images of Nairobi and Bamako are quietly affecting, arresting attention with their immediacy, honesty and elegiac presence. His compositions force us to pause. Their stillness is at once profound and jarring: like the motionless young man of Bamako standing on the sidewalk next to the wheelbarrow whose handles gleam with rain drops.
Dago is a photographer indebted to metaphors. Each image is a visual poem of disenchantment. The pictures tease out symbolic functions of objects (cross-shaped handles, reflections, traffic arrows), thriving on details and textures, parts, rather than wholes. Metonymy informs the backlit rows of men’s shoes waiting for their owners to return after prayer. The corrugated metal sheets of Nairobi’s slums become a powerful leitmotif bespeaking the failures of Africa’s modernity. A face, a plastic chair, fencing, strewn bottles, pant cuffs, even dirt – all of it in Dago’s work articulates a unique historical moment in the universal language of melancholy and longing.
This exhibition at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is open now through September 25. Opening hours: Tu- Sun 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed on Friday.