Exhibition Review: Sanlé Sory: Volta Photo
By Billy Anania
At the end of colonization is where Sanlé Sory’s narrative begins. A lifelong resident of the West African nation Burkina Faso, the photographer captured youth culture at a time of dynamic social change. Now, Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea is hosting his first gallery exhibition in the United States. Volta Photo features portraits by the postcolonial artist, dating from the 1960s through the ‘80s.
Sory opened his own photo studio in 1965, just five years after Burkina Faso’s independence from France. Then known as Upper Volta, the country rapidly shifted from outside rule to autonomy. It is perhaps this conversion that bears the deepest influence on Sory’s work, which intersects casual acquaintance and high fashion. The photographer welcomed people from all classes and demographics, encouraging them to embellish their appearance with costumes and props. As a result, Volta Studio garnered a significant reputation around Bobo-Dioulasso, the nation’s capital.
A documentarian in his own right, Sory’s career has included stints as a journalist, album cover artist and event photographer. But his studio was where vernacular work gave way to fine art. These monochromatic portraits emphasize poise and stature. Friends and customers from Fula, Malian and Voltaic cultures are shown posing, sparring and embracing before the photographer, who worked with a twin-lens Rolleiflex.
The multiplicity of outfits, backdrops and decorations for each shoot reveals the photographer’s own lightheartedness. In creating new contexts with traditional methods, Sory looked to the future with high-spirited confidence. Dressed as superheroes, models, athletes and vigilantes, his subjects transcend their geographical limitations through imaginative artistry. Each of his subjects is fit for royalty, as seen through the self-assuredness of each gaze.
The Volta studio was itself a confluence of patterns, imagery, musical instruments, vehicles, clothing, textiles and hairstyles. Stripes, checkers and polka dots interweave from floor tile to wallpaper, coalescing into material harmony. And a lack of color lets the viewer speculate about the types of wild vibrance that must have populated the room for each shoot.
Sory’s subjects never took themselves too seriously, but this should not dissuade viewers from treating the work as high art. It is in their good nature, after all, that we can see the photographer’s ability to evoke playful individualism. And for a country in transition, this was perhaps the most valuable paradigm to preserve.
Volta Photo runs through June 23 at Yossi Milo Gallery. The exhibition follows the 2017 release of a new hardcover book, Sory Sanlé: Volta Photo 1965-85, and the artist’s first international exhibition at Morton Hill Gallery in London. Visit www.yossimilo.com for more information.