Facing ourselves

Four contemporary African artists from across the continent, all featured in African Artists: From 1882 to Now, explore portraiture as a means of confronting racial, cultural and sociopolitical concerns.

The oldest artist in African Artists: From 1882 to Now, published by Phaidon, was born 140 years ago in Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria. The youngest is a painter (profiled below) and yet to turn thirty. Many featured in the book don’t currently live on the continent. Others have died in service to their art. A vast number are graduates of art institutions, while others are self-taught. 45 are born South Africans, familiar names for many of us. Others call this country home. What unites them as fine artists, sculptors and photographers from all corners of our continent and across the 350 pages of this must-have book, is their collective questioning of their identities as Africans. For many, portraiture – the act of looking at others as well as at themselves – provides an opportunity to grapple with racial, socio-political, cultural and gender concerns. In many of the more than 100 portraits published, artists question whether who they are reflects where they come from, and whether where they come from is an indication of whom they are. We profile four.

SORY SANLÉ

Born 1943, Nianiagara, Burkina Faso. Lives Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

The people that populate Sanlé’s photographs look like they are having the time of their typically young lives. Beginning his career as a photographer’s apprentice, Sanlé opened his famed photography studio, Volta Photo, in 1960, the same year of Burkina Faso’s liberation from French colonial rule. His ebullient black-and-white studio portraits, taken with a 6×6 Rolleiflex camera, reflect the optimism and exuberance of the newly independent country, where cinemas, shops and nightclubs introduced the country’s youth to the latest cultural and fashion trends. People from across the region visited Sanlé’s studio, where music played and customers fashioned themselves partaking in leisure activities of modern life, with an extensive range of props and painted backdrops to choose from. This photograph features one of Sanlé’s most popular backdrops depicting an airplane ready for take-off, its subject full of expectant possibility. Capturing the disjuncture between aspiration and reality, his set-ups – long before digital photography and the advent of selfies – offered an escapist fantasy where people became the stars of their own dreams. 

KWESI BOTCHWAY

Born 1994, Accra, Ghana. Lives Accra.

As a young child who would sketch his teachers while they taught, Botchway has always had an affinity for portraiture. His style is situated between French Impressionism and African realism, a fusion he has coined as ‘Afro-impressionism’. Botchway creates multigenerational portraits of subjects both known and imagined, devoting particular attention to their facial features, through which he attempts to generate empathy and connection with the viewer. His densely coloured paintings find inspiration in the works of Kerry James Marshall (b.1955), Lisa Yuskavage (b.1962) and fellow Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, with whom he has worked closely since 2015. Using regal poses, saturated hues and captivating fashions, Botchway’s paintings work towards elevating the Black figure. The skin of his subjects starts with a rich purple pigment as a way to imbue his figures with a sense of royalty, and they are often adorned in jewels, headwraps and luxurious garments. The pose of the figure in Green Fluffy Coat resembles that of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665); in Botchway’s interpretation, the woman possesses a confident, confrontational gaze, pushing back against the colonial history of the medium. 

ATONG ATEM

Born 1991, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Lives Melbourne, Australia.

Born in Ethiopia to South Sudanese parents, Atem and her family, escaping the second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005), settled in a Kenyan refugee camp before arriving in Australia at the age of six. Initially pursuing architecture, she later studied fine art in Sydney, where she encountered the work of Malian studio photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, whose work challenged colonial-era ethnographic photography. Atem similarly subverts thegaze of the ethnographer’s lens in her staged portraits of friends and family, many of which explore social and cultural identities among African diasporic communities in Australia. Her self-portraits incorporate elements of fantasy, surrealism and science fiction to further address the politics of looking and being looked at. In each one she radically changes her appearance, painting her face in elaborate ways with bold colours and patterns. Weary of always being preceded by her ethnicity, she began the series to address the sense of alienation she felt growing up in a white-majority society, and to contribute to ongoing conversations about colonialism, in Australia and globally. 

PIETER HUGO

Born 1976, Johannesburg, South Africa. Lives Cape Town, South Africa.

Describing himself as a ‘political-with-a-small-“p” photographer’, Hugo probes issues of race, class, identity, violence and privilege in Africa. Self-taught and identifying as ‘White African’, the prolific photographer is informed by the vestiges of apartheid and the paradox of feeling African but recognizing that his skin colour denies him access to Black experience. His portraits focus on marginalized people pushed to the fringes of society, including gang members, people living with HIV, people with albinism and people with impaired vision. This photograph is from ‘1994’, a series of large-scale colour portraits of children born in Rwanda and South Africa titled after the year of the Rwandan genocide and the end of apartheid. Taken in rural South Africa, it shows two anonymous boys in a field, one being carried by the other. As with other images in the series, it conveys Hugo’s ambivalence regarding his subject: the children symbolize the hope of a life free from oppression and the historical baggage of their parents’ generation, yet their solemn dispositions hint at an inevitable loss of innocence to come. 

Text: Martin Jacobs
Additional text extracts:
George Vasey, curator and writer (Sory Sanlé)
Amarie Gipson, writer, critic and arts worker (Kwesi Botchway)
David Trigg, writer, critic and art historian (Atong Atem and Pieter Hugo)