According to John Berger's seminal text, Ways of Seeing, photographs are not - as is often assumed - a mechanical record. "Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights." *
'Staged Realities: Exposing the soul in African Photography 1870-2004', a thought-provoking exhibition at Michael Stevenson Contemporary, has transformed the gallery into a three-dimensional photo album spanning 134 years. Arranged along five central themes, the exhibition illustrates how the photographer's way of seeing is reflected in his or her choice of subject.
The viewer is continually challenged to consider deeply the act of framing - the inclusion and exclusion of particular elements - in the art of African portrait photography. First up are David Goldblatt's striking photographs of statesmen - including Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe - that show an elite conscious of its power and at ease with the photographic genre.
In contrast, photographs taken in the late 19th century show a series of coerced black models dressed in beads and other accessories, clearly uncomfortable in stiff, formal poses. Such images fulfill European perceptions of ethnicity rather than portray an authentic snapshot of African life.
One photograph Femme Zouloue, taken by an unknown photographer circa 1875, shows a studio with a Zulu woman lying on a platform draped in a sheet. The pose is more Manet's Olympia than an authentic representation of a Zulu woman. It immediately recalls the contemporary paintings of Johannes Phokela, whose re-workings of European Old Masters insert black figures into otherwise Western contexts. But Femme Zouloue has no such subversive intent in mind.
These kinds of European stereotypes are fittingly exploded by modern African photographers like Philip Kwame Apagya and Cameroonian Samuel Fosso, with three decades of self-portraiture behind him. Their images celebrate their own identity or those of their sitters, rather than a preconceived notion thereof.
African artists living abroad, like Eileen Perrier, also help disconnect portraiture from its exploitative past. Other photographers go even further, using costumes and props to subvert African stereotypes rather than confirm them. Patricia Driscoll, for example, last year collaborated with theatre director Brett Bailey to produce images like The Days of Miracle and Wonder for Bailey's theatre production, iMumbo Jumbo.
The transformation of how the black figure in particular is depicted by Western photographers in the 19th century with contemporary representations - often by Africans themselves - is indeed stark. Photographs circa 1875 show bare-breasted black women (men hardly feature) posed formally in studio settings. As the gallery guide states, these voyeuristic and erotic images were considered acceptable because the subjects were exotic in European eyes.
Using a technique with a long history, particularly in feminist art practice, the black body has today been 'reclaimed' by artists like Berni Searle and Emeka Okereke, who use their own bodies as subjects.. Shown in a South African context, however, the body is also layered with political strata.
Composure is another interesting facet of this exhibition. Early photographs show the discomfort of sitters but some subjects manage to maintain a fine sense of dignity. In Sue Williamson's video presentation, Better Lives (2003), recent immigrants to South Africa pose unflinchingly in their smartest attire while a voiceover explains their life stories to viewers.
At first, the projection appears to be a photograph, but small details - like a fly landing on a shoe or the blink of an eye - reveal it as a continuous film. The dignity of the subjects makes a striking counterpoint to the tragedy of their stories.
In the case of Congolese immigrants Albert and Isabelle Ngandu, the latter's drumming fingers give away the nervous tension. Together with the stoic restraint on her face, heavily etched with emotion, the weight of her experience is indicated more powerfully than words alone could convey. Walking away from Williamson's projections, thoughts lingered about the secret histories of passers-by and strangers in the street. In much the same way, the exhibition as a whole challenges the viewer to consider the stories behind each portrait.
In one much older image taken by an unknown photographer in the late 1800s, a black bare-breasted woman looks sideways to reveal a regal profile. My eye was strongly drawn towards a small striking detail - a dangling pearl earring.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, a movie currently on circuit that investigates the fictional tale of one of Johannes Vermeer's sitters, tells the dark tale of a young servant forced to pose for a portrait. The intrigue behind what is now known as a famous painting by a Dutch master left me wondering about the stories behind other portrait paintings. 'Staged Realities' does the same for the world of portrait photography.
* Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC.
Opens: March 24
Closes: May 8