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May 3, 2006

Okwui Enwezor

Paul Laster interviews Okwui Enwezor, curator of Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. Enwezor is the dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute and artistic director of the second Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville. He served as artistic director for the 2002 Documenta and 1997 Biennial of Johannesburg, and has organized numerous international exhibitions of contemporary art.

AK:  Snap Judgment presents work from the past five years by 35 artists from a dozen African nations. Several of the photographers — such as Oladélé Ajiboye Bamgboye, Allan deSouza, Moshekwa Langa, and Otobong Nkanga — live in Europe and the US while Yto Barrada, Andrew Dosunmu, Theo Eshetu, and Randa Shaath are of African descent but were born elsewhere. How did you discover the various artists' work, and what was the process for viewing and selecting it for the exhibition?

OE:  When we talk about Africa we must begin with the process of identification from the perspective of the artist. How do they see themselves? Which cultural side do they consider themselves fundamentally committed to? This is the first issue for me — to get to know the work of these artists by understanding the framework in which they have positioned themselves. While this situation is not exclusive to Africa, it's a point of departure for studying the art of the continent. We are almost at the tail end of the process of identification based on national borders. Currently, we are looking at artists who were born elsewhere but feel very committed — philosophically, culturally, and ethically — to Africa. These artists are very open and in many ways are committed to a very broad mode of working that is not just simply tied to their cultural or ethnic identity. This is only one part of who they are and how they express themselves.

AK:  Did you travel extensively to assemble the show?

OE:  I frequently travel back and forth to Africa, so my engagement with African artists was deeper than just seeking out artists who look African or think African or identify with Africa. I am constantly on the continent, in various capacities as a curator, a writer, and simply a visitor. I found many of these artists through my travels, but also through the work of others. These are not undiscovered African artists. These are artists who have been working over a very long period of time and have exhibited in a wide variety of contexts. I'm interested in investigating the shifts in the positioning of artists, rather than where they were born or where they come from. So I look at the different positions of those who were born outside of Africa but have self-identified with a notion of Africa, which is not in any way monolithic, but actually very diverse. People have a range of intentions and motivations for identifying as African. But looking at all of this different positioning, I thought it would be important to make an exhibition that goes beyond the territorial limits of the continent, to show Africa in its global dimensions. This for me was really the point of departure.

AK:  You were one of the co-curators for the seminal 1996 Guggenheim Museum exhibition In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, which introduced the portrait photography of Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibé, and Samuel Fosso to an international audience. How has photography in Africa evolved in the past decade?

OE:  I think that is precisely the question that Snap Judgments wanted to take up. When we look at the first major exhibition of African photography a decade ago, we see significant differences between then and now. One would say in 1996, in respect to the work of Sedyou Keita and others, that a national modernity was visible in the practice of African photographers. Looking back ten years from the Guggenheim show, what I noticed is the degree to which the artists had begun to use photography as an analytical tool rather than a tool of representation. That's what the Guggenheim show was mostly about; it was about portraiture as a way of looking at African modernity. Ten years hence, the artists are really using the tools of photography in the ways that most contemporary artists use the camera — as means of artistic investigation. Now, the analytical procedures that the artists bring to bear on the subjects of the body and social relations are radically different from what the Guggenheim exhibition was putting forward. I think this is really the tension or the difference. It brings a greater degree of complexity to African photography.

AK:  In the Snap Judgments catalogue essay, you describe the global media's typical African reportage as "Afro-pessimism" and discuss a "clash of lenses" as a new generation of African photographers attempts to set the record straight. Could you explain these positions and discuss how the exhibition addresses them?

OE:  The artists are not necessarily setting the record straight. The "clash of lenses" is about different modes of spectatorship. It's already a given that Africa is represented in the news, however it's very difficult for the news about Africa and images of Africa to go beyond the already established contentions and clichés of the continent. The conventions through which Africa is imaged always express incredible deficiency. We're presented a place that is always in the midst of disintegration and chaos, almost at the edge of disappearing. So we tend to approach Africa with a sense of pity. In reality, there is much more going on. When these artists take a look at the places where they live and work, they see them through a completely different set of lenses, as opposed to a photojournalist who simply descends on the horror. I'm not condemning such people, but these are conventions that have become a pathology, and this pathology is at the heart of Afro-pessimism. The great thing that art does is that it finds ways to upset the conventions of imaging that we have become very attracted to and immune to the same time. This is one of the things that the codes of artistic practice can do: to raise vital questions and to propose new possibilities of meaning, in terms of images of the continent. The works are not celebratory in any way, shape, or form, but they are decidedly engaging in terms of investigation, critical in terms of analysis, and honest in their depictions of the continent's complexity.

AK:  You feature a large number of women artists, including Yto Barrada, Zohra Bensemra, Hala Elkoussy, and Tracey Rose in Snap Judgments, while In/Sight offered only two women photographers, Zarina Bhimji and Lamia Naji, who are also represented here. Are African women now finding increased opportunities to pursue artistic careers?

OE:  It was very unfortunate that In/Sight didn't have a greater number of women photographers. The names that you mention are mostly very young artists, and at the time of In/Sight they would have been at the beginning of their formation. So this is another great thing about the current exhibition — it shows that not only are there many younger artists working in Africa now, but there are also more women, and these artists are showing around the world and making work that is part of the contemporary art discourse. These are the positive things that I take away from this exhibition, which was one of my intentions for organizing it. I wanted to invite analysis of many different cultural and inner spaces and also make an exhibition about one generation of artists. The women artists in the exhibition play a great role in representing their generation — Fatou Kandé Senghor, Lara Baladi, Maha Maamoun, Jo Ratcliffe, Doa Aly, Tracey Rose, and Yto Barrada — and their presence demonstrates a fundamental shift.

AK:  Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko's street snaps of colorfully dressed youth, Zwelethu Mthethwa's grand portraits of gold miners, Moshekwa Langa's domestic still-life prints, and Guy Tillim's photos of the working class in his Jo'burg series seem universal in appearance — as though they could have been made by artists living anywhere — yet they capture an African identity. Is there a distinct African eye or is globalization creating a similarity of approach and common point of view?

OE:  Well, I don't know if there is a distinct African eye as such but it seems to me that there is a very fundamental focus in the work that you mention. It so happens that most of those artists are South Africa artists, and what you are describing is a clear dichotomy between the conditions of production in South Africa and the conditions of production say in Cairo. Different institutional practices allow different kinds of work to emerge. As you know when you travel within the United States to smaller communities there is not the kind of work that you find in New York. What you find in New York has already gone through stages of processing and refinement that make it look as though it could be from anywhere, although I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing.

One thing that I can certainly say about all of the artists in the exhibition is that they work within an international framework. Even if their subject matter is decidedly local, or if their chosen practice is hampered by institutional deficit, they are working within an international context. Regardless of what the outcome is, these places are completely integrated into the circuits of exchange of material and information. They are living in worlds that are informed by the proliferation of material goods, whether or not they have access to those things. While the South African work might look a little bit different or seem as though it could be in Chelsea, the subject matter is very local. It's very much connected to the cultural conditions of place. I think this is something that we must not overlook.

AK:  Although there are several multimedia works, such as Lamia Naji's projection of documentary photos of a Sufi ceremony set to trance music and Andrew Dosunmu's music videos for Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, and other notable musicians, the role of digital technology isn't highly visible in the exhibition — only Lara Baladi's large mural of a fantasy scene looks as though it might be a digital montage that was printed using new technology. Are computers becoming more accessible in Africa? Does the Internet have a sizable presence there yet? Have you seen signs of digital technologies being utilized in artistic production?

OE:  Computers are everywhere in Africa. One of the things that we have to overcome is thinking of Africa as a backward place. For example, photography arrived in Africa in its first decade of invention. Useful technologies of every kind arrive in Africa as they do everywhere. Most of the artists send their images on a CD, and most of the artwork that we have discussed is produced out of the computer. It is not possible to discuss photography today without really linking it to the issue of technology. Most of the artists in the exhibition are not working with conventional film — they are working with digital cameras.

Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography is on view at the International Center of Photography in New York through May 28.

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