African Cosmologies — Photography, Time, and the Other

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Mark Sealy guides us through the work of eight artists from an exhibition he originally curated for FotoFest 2020, examining the relationships between contemporary African life, the diaspora, and global histories of photography and colonialism

“It’s like having a 60th birthday party,” says Mark Sealy, alluding to the 33 artists included in his latest exhibition, African Cosmologies — Photography, Time, and the Other. “I follow artists for a long time — I could be in dialogue with 20 or 30 people for years, sometimes decades. If you live long enough, you can eventually bring these different relationships together in the same room. Hopefully, they’ll all get on, and celebrate the relationships that they share”.

“Africa is everywhere, isn’t it? I want to elevate our way of thinking, from geography, to cosmology

Mark Sealy

Featuring artists of the African diaspora, the exhibition presents decades of work that examine the social and political conditions that inform concepts of representation, and in doing so question the ways in which subjectivity is constructed by the camera. “Most of the artists are talking about the politics of their time,” says Sealy, referring to the work of Ernest Cole, who documented apartheid in South Africa, for example, or the perfomative portraiture of Wilfred Ukpong, who deals with the social issues facing the embattled oil-rich territory of the Niger Delta.

Sealy’s approach to curating takes its cues from jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. “Coltrane’s work wasn’t about finding a formula, sticking to it, and becoming successful with that. What I enjoy about his work is this constant journey in looking for something, which is in many ways a spiritual journey,” Sealy explains.  “Africa is everywhere, isn’t it? I want to elevate our way of thinking, from geography, to cosmology. The idea is that we need to look up to Africa as an idea, rather than as a broken place of extraction.”

The Director of Autograph ABP since 1992, Sealy has steered the organisation from its beginnings as the Association of Black Photographers to an arts agency with a broader mission, building an archive of new and existing works to provide an “understanding of how photography relates to cultural identity, representation, human rights and social justice”. For almost three decades, Sealy has rigorously championed the decolonisation of photography, and has curated several international exhibitions, including Human Rights Human Wrongs, shown at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. Last year, he published Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, a book that examines how Western photographic practice has been employed as a tool for creating Eurocentric visual regimes.

One of the world’s largest exhibitions of African photography to date, African Cosmologies was to be the central programme at this year’s FotoFest Biennial in Houston. Unfortunately, the festival has been postponed due to COVID-19. However, the work of its 33 featured artists can be discovered alongside accompanying essays by experts such as Azu Nwagbogu and Olu Oguibe, in a companion book now available through Schilt.

During this hiatus, Sealy picks out eight key artists from the exhibition,  sharing how he interacts with their work, and the role that they play in his personal, cosmological exploration of photography from the African diaspora.

The accompanying publication, African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other, is published by Schilt.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989)

Inspired by the practice of West African Yoruba priests, Fani-Kayode’s portraits explore notions of desire, spirituality, and cultural dislocation, depicting the black male body as a focal point to probe the boundaries of spiritual and erotic fantasy, and of cultural and sexual difference

Four Twins, 1985.
 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

“In 1988, Rotimi Fani-Kayode became the first official chairperson of Autograph, so in many ways he is central to the identity of our establishment — he is one of the core artists of our DNA. We have been looking after his estate since his death, and  the conversation with him is very much alive at Autograph. Rotimi’s work was shown in Houston as part of the FotoFest in 1992 — his exhibition was displayed next door to the work of Mário Cravo Neto. This was a significant moment for me. I’d been working full time with Autograph for about six months, and being able to see Rotimi’s work outside of the local Brixton art scene, and having it shown in a room next door to an artist like Mário Cravo Neto, who, like Rotimi, was hugely influenced by the West African Yoruba religion, it became quite evident that there was something special about this African diasporic artist.

“One of the underlying currents of African Cosmologies is the idea of returning. For me, the brightness of Rotimi’s work became evident in Houston in 1992, so having him as one of the earliest artists you encounter in the exhibition was really important. It is almost like a return to those ideas I had in 1992, in the south of America, looking at these two artists — one from Brazil, one from London; one queer, one straight; one Italian, one black African — making work around this symbolic, religious, influential way of being, showing that there was an opportunity to think about culture — rather than thinking of Africa through the lens of race.”

Wilfred Ukpong

Created in the artist’s birthplace in southern Nigeria, Ukpong’s work deals with the social issues facing the embattled oil-rich territory in the Niger Delta. Working alongside marginalised rural communities in creative workshops, Ukpong employs art as a tool for social change in a region that has endured decades of corruption and poor infrastructure.

“Wilfred is one of the younger artists I’ve been working with over the last couple of years. I’m drawn to his work because it’s very performative, and it plays to the politics of ecologies. He is creating this supernatural world where you can have a conversation about the oil industry and global economies. It’s based on trying to work up a participatory practice with local communities and creating visual metaphors and fantasies to talk about a very serious issue.

“It is visually seductive, which is also what I enjoy about it. It’s not fashion, it is complete fantasy, but grounded in a quite heavyweight political demographic, which I think is quite hard for artists to achieve. What’s great about this project is that he’s not someone who is just rocking up with a  journalistic approach.

“The work is about trying to get to the heart of creative practice, and creating this embodiment of the subjects through his work. It’s playing with mysticism and storytelling, which is part of human life. I don’t see this tied to the genre of afrofuturism — this isn’t about the future, this is about the present. It’s about how we use the theater to open the door to complicated conversations, which many people might not be aware of. I think he’s done that exceptionally well.”

BC1-ND-FC: By and by, I Will Carry this Burden of Hope, till the Laments of my Newborn is Heard #2, 2017. From the series Blazing Century 1, Niger-Delta/Future-Cosmos, 2011–17. © Wilfred Ukpong.

Aida Muluneh

Commissioned by charity Water Aid, Water Life examines patriarchal culture in rural Ethiopia, highlighting the impact that a lack of clean water has on women’s lives

Access, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From the series Water Life, 2018. © Aïda Muluneh.

“I first met Aida at Bamako Encounters in around 2008, and I’ve been following her work since then. This project, which was commissioned by WaterAid, examines the role that women play as the bearers of carrying water. Moving away from the pathetic image of people in need, Aida is asking us to think beyond those polemic spaces. She’s asking us to question our relationship to water through the lens of performative work.

“African cosmologies, and many other cosmologies, are grounded in mythical moments, fantastical imaginations, and I think artists like Aida are really employing these imaginary moments of construction to help us understand the tragedy of our present condition. It’s grounded in solid politics, and creating visual metaphors to have a conversation about it.

“This commission with WaterAid is to be applauded, it is a massive step change in terms of thinking about how we can engage audiences with these complicated questions. The visionary thinking in offering her the opportunity to do this should be celebrated.”

Zanele Muholi

From their self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness, Muholi’s image honors the 44 South African miners murdered by police during a workers’ strike at a Marikana mine in 2012.

“Muholi is an artist I’ve been following for many years. There is only one image by Muholi in the exhibition, in which they are performing as a South African miner. It is probably one of the strongest images from the series, Hail the Dark Lioness, because it’s so intertextual, and deeply political. The idea of extraction — that all of these colonialities have been about taking resources out of places — the image talks to that too.  The fact that this is this bare chested Amazonian woman coming at you from the lens of queer activism adds another layer on to that as well.

“Sometimes an artist just gets it right on many levels. We’ve shown Muholi’s work at Autograph in the past, but I’ve always thought that this image was the most potent and powerful. We installed it as a large wallpaper in the exhibition, so visitors are confronted by this distant image, and as you walk down this very long corridor, it just gets larger and larger.”

Thulani II, Parktown, 2015 © Zanele Muholi.

Samuel Fosso

In African Spirits, Samuel Fosso impersonates historical figures associated with the Pan-Africanism liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, including Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, as well as figures from the African diaspora, such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali

Angela Davies. From the series African Spirits, 2008. © Samuel Fosso.

“I’ve been following Samuel since 1994, when he was exhibiting at the very first Bamako EncountersAfrican Spirits is both playful and political — you can tell I get really excited by performative photographic work. Fosso performing as Angela Davis is a radical, transgressive, contemporary statement. I love what he’s done there. And of course, you’ve got Malcolm X, Haile Selassie, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. It’s like a roll call of radical African political figures. It’s a staged theater of political activism through the lens of himself as a performative character.”

Mónica de Miranda

Showing work from projects Atlantic and City-Scapes, De Miranda photographs people positioned within enormous and vast natural landscapes, reflecting her interest in the relationships between geography, history, and subjectivity in relation to the African diaspora.

Cavaleiro negro (Black Knight) from the series Circular do Sul Impressão, 2019. © Mónica de Miranda.

“Monica’s work reveals how geography plays an important part in terms of our identity formations. In her work, she is very much in the landscape. She can’t separate herself from this place. Her images are lyrical, performative, and contemplated — quiet moments that offer as a kind of solace. It’s very reflective and melancholic.

“The Atlantic is a huge melancholic ocean where people have been moved around and dislocated. Here, the violence of what happened across it is called back into the present, because it’s still very much part of what needs to be reconciled. That’s the beauty of Monica’s work, it shows that until it’s all settled, and I don’t know whether it ever will be, we are always going to be in a place of conflict.”

Hélène A. Amouzou

Shot in the dimly lit attic above her transitional housing unit, Togo-born artist Amouzou captured her haunting series of self-portraits in 2008, during the period in which she was seeking asylum in Belgium.

Self-Portraits, 2008. © Hélène A. Amouzou.

“This work could not be more relevant in terms of the period of isolation we are going through now. I first saw Hélène’s work in Paris years ago, in an exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly. This work is quite old, but it’s not very well known, and I wanted to bring it into the frame of this exhibition because there’s an obvious dialogue between the migratory subject, the metaphors of the suitcase, the sense of waiting for recognition. It’s waiting to be fully unpacked, waiting for the state to take responsibility, waiting for that violence to end.

“Everything feels like it’s in transition — nothing is grounded. It’s almost like the opposite of Monica’s work, in which there’s a sense of being present. In Amouzou’s work, it’s like she is floating in this ambiguous state called the migrant. There is a sense that you want it to be grounded, you want it to live somewhere.”

Sethembile Msezane

The symbol of the Zimbabwe Bird rose to prominence after the theft of one of the ancient sculptures by British colonist Cecil Rhodes and the subsequent struggle to reclaim the statue. Employing this national emblem, Msezane works to deconstruct the ongoing memorialisation of colonialism in the form of physical monuments that honor its key figures

Chapungu — The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. © Sethembile Msezane.

“Going back into the whole idea of cosmologies, Sethembile is summoning this mythical bird, a powerful creature, to come and help reclaim the culture and the space of her being. She is drawing on mythological pasts, and calling on those ancestral gods to play a role in the contemporary, and empower her to act in the present. Dressed as the Zimbabwe Bird, she is recalling the bird back as a contemporary activist, to claim the space and to claim that heritage.”

African Cosmologies — Photography, Time and the Other, is the central programme of FotoFest Biennial 2020 in Houston, US. Due to the current pandemic, FotoFest has temporarily closed the Biennial until further notice. The catalogue, co-published by Schilt, is available to purchase.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.