Africa Unwrapped

At MAC, "Snap Judgments" breaks from clichés

In his catalogue essay for "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography," on view at Miami Art Central, curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor refers to Kevin Carter's appalling photograph of a naked and emaciated Sudanese child as emblematic of the West's myopic view of Africa.

The image was published on the front page of the March 26, 1993 issue of the New York Times to illustrate an article about families driven from their homes by a severe drought and famine. The caption read: "A little girl, weakened from hunger, collapsed recently along the trail to a feeding center in Ayod. Nearby, a vulture waited."

Carter's Pulitzer-winning photo, which portrays the starving child as little more than carrion, reflects the global media's jaundiced depiction of the continent, contends Enwezor. He goes on to say that for the majority of Westerners, who form impressions based on TV programs or newspaper articles, such images convey the notion that civil strife, disease, hunger, and genocide perpetually buffet the landscape. According to Enwezor, this perceived scenery is a historically objectified terrain whose borders have been shaped by what he calls "Afro-pessimism," or the assumption that Africa and its people "possess nothing of value for the advancement of humanity."

Cindy and Nkuli, from Lolo Veleko's series 
Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Cindy and Nkuli, from Lolo Veleko's series Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Organized by the International Center of Photography in New York City and curated by the Nigerian-born Enwezor, "Snap Judgments" features more than 200 works by 35 artists from the Muslim cultures of North Africa to the sub-Saharan nations of the south, and seeks to dispel media-skewed notions of daily life in Africa. Enwezor, who also played a role in the groundbreaking "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present" at the Guggenheim in 1996, has assembled a group of artists, many of whom are younger than 35 years old and largely unknown to American audiences. The show offers a striking contrast to the scenes Americans are accustomed to seeing from a continent that boasts more than 70 nations and 800 million inhabitants with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds and languages. The sprawling show delivers an eclectic and wildly divergent vision of contemporary postcolonial Africa and also marks the first major U.S. exhibition examining current photographic works from the continent in a decade.

In Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko's street shots of young black South Africans in Johannesburg, her subjects share the same funky taste in style and search for personal identity. In one work, a young woman poses against a tiled wall, her head cocked defiantly. She wears a canary-yellow top, camouflage culottes, and red fishnet stockings. The fashionista clutches a purse made from flattened Coke cans, and a studded leather bracelet encircles her wrist. Thulani, another of Veleko's head-turning hipsters, wears eye-popping yellow-and-blue plaid trousers, a green paisley polyester shirt, and a spiffy red knit cap. Sporting Superfly shades and kicking back with his hands in his pockets, this fellow drips with a sense he's too cool for school.

Guy Tillim's Jo'Burg series explores the post-apartheid whiplash in the previously integrated Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow. The area has fallen on hard times owing to "white flight" in the Nineties and neglect by landlords. One work depicts a group of people gathered in a squalid room of a decaying building where a man runs a bar out of his home. Another depicts a woman removing a stained mattress from her apartment after being evicted by red ants, while a neighbor sits in his nearby doorway, holding a shotgun.

Originally from Mali, Sada Tangara moved to neighboring Senegal as a child. At the age of thirteen, he entered an art school for homeless children where he was given a disposable camera and encouraged to document his surroundings. The Big Sleep, a series of black-and-white pictures he shot between 1998 and 2003, portrays Dakar's homeless children sleeping in clusters on refuse-strewn street corners or alone in the back seats of abandoned cars. Tangara's subjects, many of whom are his friends, are shown close up, which reveals their vulnerability via a poetic tenderness that conveys empathy instead of pity.

South African Mikhael Subotzky takes a searing look at his homeland's prison system in his series Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners). In several panoramic works that depict inhumane conditions, he examines life inside Voorberg and Pollsmoor prisons outside Cape Town. Pollsmoor, where Nelson Mandela was jailed during part of his political imprisonment, houses more than 7000 inmates. Cell 508b, A Section Maximum Security Prison shows dozens of inmates crammed into a room, some doubled up in cots, while others lounge on mattresses spread across the entire length of the cell's floor in an image reeking of humiliation and psychosexual tension. Abbatoir, Voorberg Prison depicts five men posing for the camera in the clink's slaughterhouse. The heads of a score of lambs line opposite walls. One man crouches on a waist-high stack of hides as another cradles an armful of entrails. The face of the sole white man in the picture has been blacked out to prevent identification.

The work of Algerian photojournalist Zohra Bensemra, who has shot for Reuters since 1998, documents the life of women in her homeland amid Islamic terrorist activity in recent years. In a small C-print, a mother sits knitting on the living room floor with her daughter nearby. Her adolescent son is hunched next to a table where an AK-47 rests alongside an ashtray. Another work shows a group of women on the day of their graduation from the 'Ain Benian police school in Algiers; they are members of a self-defense and close-combat squad. The smiling officers wear white gloves and makeup as they sit in an informal grouping with their new machine guns nestled against the fronts of their fashionable crisp blue uniforms.

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