A World In Common: Contemporary African Photography @ Tate Modern, London

When is photography not photography? When it’s an installation! This exhibition wasn’t what I expected as it included an amazing installation piece celebrating the importance of paper/archival/administrative materials (including photographs) as a labyrinth of box files, to a free nation (Nigeria), delineated by soils. Also forming a cityscape. (A History of a City in a Box by Ndidi Dike, 2019). History matters!

Also included were moving images (a reflective piece by Zina Saro-Wina, responding to so much pain, loss and political fight); ceremonial masks and painting-like photography (a Sufi triptych). Though the focus overall was in considering whose image are the nations of Africa seen through and defined by, and who controls that image.

The works on display were wide-ranging from landscapes to portraits. Best of all were the feisty street photos of powerful, empowered women by Hassan Hajjaj, on their own terms in Morocco. (And their incredible style — and their bikes)... The frames too! I love the joy, vitality and pride bursting out of these portraits.

Kudzanai Chiurai’s We Live In Silence series was jaw-dropping, revisiting classical and religious works. Whilst it wasn’t the intention of the artist (who is definitely saying that Western Christianity was terrible for local indigenous religions and women), this work reinvigorated my faith. So good to be reminded that there were many women around the cross, that Jesus was brown (not white) and to reflect on the treatment of black and brown women by the Church, as well as their prominence and success within it.

A further work had Europeans closest to an altar with black ‘bearers’ as Klan-like ‘ altar boys’ at a distance. On one level sinister as there are themes of class, privilege and oppression here — and yet it subverts itself, because Jesus died for all, is for all and brings unity and equality where there shouldn’t be. Just like in the Temple, he overturns our systems and structures. Togetherness is hinted at — and could happen, overturning oppression and destroying existing ruling systems.

Then there were the stunningly beautiful but also mournful painting-like photographs of Em’kal Eyongakpa of Cameroon, haunted by fragments of people, objects, war. Breath-taking, but also incredibly poignant.

Untitled XI (Nsanakang), part of Ketoya Speaks

The colour pops of Andrew Esiebo’s Mutations (2025–2022); the busy, thriving, vibrant urban environment of Lagos. Incredibly beautiful, with incredible, very human details. A further work had people navigating their way (determinedly and yet in some peril) around a major road.

I loved the imagining of a determined proto-type independent Zambian space programme from the 1960’s, (not taken up by the government sadly), by Cristina de Middel Butungakuna (2011-12).

The Afronauts, 2011,

Fabrice Monterio’s The Prophecy (combining fashion images with pollution and waste) were powerfully moving.

Untitled 1, 2015–22

Whilst the exhibition itself wrestled with imperialist legacies through 36 artists’ works, it wasn’t as inclusive as it set itself up to be. Some spiritualities were celebrated, whilst Christianity was very much condemned as the white man’s colonialist religion, ignoring the very North African origins of many of the Early Church Fathers and most celebrated Christians. Nor were African Sikhs, Hindus, Jews mentioned. And not so much a world in common…Although it was wonderful to see John Mbiti get a mention.

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@ Images remain the property of the artists and are used here purely to illustrate the Tate Modern exhibition, January 2024.

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!