West African Portraiture: From Independence into the 21st century

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On show at London’s David Hill Gallery, the exhibition features work by Sanlé Sory, Rachidi Bissiriou, Malick Sidibé, and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou

In just a few years either side of 1960, a wave of independence swept across Africa. In March 1957, Ghana declared independence from Great Britain, and by 1963, 24 African nations had freed themselves from colonial rule. Now, a new show at London’s David Hill Gallery celebrates post-colonial west African portraiture, bringing together some of the region’s most important photographers, including Sanlé Sory, Rachidi Bissiriou, Malick Sidibé and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou.

Sanlé Sory

Born in 1943 in Burkina Faso, when it was still a French colony known as Republique de Haute-Volta, Sanlé Sory started taking photographs in 1960 — the year the country regained independence. He learned his trade working as an apprentice to a Ghanaian photographer, processing, printing and using a Rolleiflex twin lens camera, and cutting his teeth working as a freelance reporter and shooting record covers. But studio photography was his passion, and by the mid-60s he had opened his own studio, Volta Photo, in his hometown, Bobo-Dioulasso. Sory’s black-and-white images tell the tale of a country’s residents embracing their new found independence with open arms.

Image © Sanle Sory

Rachidi Bissiriou

Rachidi Bissiriou’s work had never been seen outside of his village in Benin, where he photographed local families after opening his studio Photo Super, which operated in the Oguidigbo district between 1968 and 1985. Working with a Yashica twin-lens medium format camera, he produced a series of portraits depicting people in their everyday clothing, some traditional and some informal, photographed as the artist found them.

Image © Rachidi Bissiriou.
Image © Rachidi Bissiriou.

Malick Sidibé

Established Malian photographer Malick Sidibé documented Mali’s capital, Bamako, as it transitioned from a colony to independence. Sidibé photographs show a vibrant youth culture at dance clubs, parties and sporting events, as well as thousands of portraits taken in his studio. Included in the exhibition are four of Sidibé’s unique Chemises — small prints of his edit of photographs from events and social functions, glued to cardboard sleeves. These were used as a reference system for people to order prints, and many of the original negatives have not survived. Sidibé’s work has been exhibited internationally since 1990, and in 2003 he received the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography and became the first African to receive the Venice Biennale art exhibition’s Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement.

'Les J. S. Copains' © Malick Sidibé.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou

Documenting his hometown Porto Novo in Benin, Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s images focus on how ancestry can shape counter-cultural narratives. Included in the exhibition are two colour photographs of Yoruba locals dressed in the traditional Eégún costumes against mud brick walls. The Eégún are the invocation of the Yoruba’s spiritual ancestors and at certain points emerge and gather for masquerades, sometimes attracting crowds of thousands. Agbodjelou is the founder and director of the first photographic school in Benin, and was recently commissioned by Virgil Abloh to shoot the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2020 campaign.

'Untitled #2', from Egungun, 2011 © Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou.

Tête à Têtes — West African Portraiture from Independence into the 21st Century is on show at David Hill Gallery until 27 November.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. 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, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.