Recent Histories [Neu-Ulm]
Contemporary African Photography and Video Art

5/7/2017 - 11/12/2017

Walthercollection Petrosdawit Strangersnotebook

Conceptual Framework

Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art features the work of fourteen contemporary African artists, born in the 1970s and later. Their varied bodies of work investigate personal experiences, questions of identity and belonging, and an array of sociopolitical concerns—including migration, lineage, and the legacies of colonialism. In these approaches, Recent Histories reveals the dialogues taking place amongst the current generation of lens-based image-makers, providing multiple points of entry to engage critically with current practices in Africa.

The underlying goal of Recent Histories is to reconcile the notion of "Africanness" through its treatment of particular artists' practices, rather than privileging existing discourses as a means of understanding a work, or a generation of practitioners. This proposition makes a conceptual break with prevailing approaches for facilitating and amplifying the work of African artists in the mainstream.

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Edson Chagas, "Tipo Passe," 2012–14
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Featuring photography and video work by Edson Chagas, Mimi Cherono Ng'ok, Andrew Esiebo, Em'kal Eyongakpa, François-Xavier Gbré, Simon Gush, Délio Jasse, Lebohang Kganye, Sabelo Mlangeni, Mame-Diarra Niang, Dawit L. Petros, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Thabiso Sekgala, and Michael Tsegaye—and including installations that have been conceived specifically for the Neu-Ulm campus—Recent Histories unfolds across the three houses of The Walther Collection. Two overarching curatorial threads link the different works: "Deconstructed Spaces, Surveyed Memories," is staged in the bottom level of the White Cube, and "Social Life, Emotional Cartographies," spans the upper level of the White Cube, the Black House, and the Green House.

The White Cube: Deconstructed Spaces, Surveyed Memories

Presented in the lower level of the White Cube, Deconstructed Spaces, Surveyed Memories assembles works by artists who address structural notions of identity and memory. These artists explore such issues by embracing principles of abstraction, analyzing particular landscapes and built environments, or rejecting these approaches altogether for a more spiritual invocation of the photographic inquiry. Considering the impact of broad sociocultural, economic, and political currents as they shape the quotidian, these artists examine urban architectures, sites of labor, and products of mass consumption. Probing environments that oscillate between the public and personal, the works provide different commentaries on the transformations of life, brought about within the framework of an increasingly interconnected world.

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Tsegaye_Future Memories
Michael Tsegaye, "Future Memories," 2006–ongoing

Michael Tsegaye's "Future Memories" (2006–ongoing) chronicles life in contemporary Addis Ababa through topographic cityscapes as well as poignant views of inhabitants and the old villages that used to define the metropolis. With these images, Tsegaye conveys his way of "capturing and immortalizing what will—or already has—faded into the past." Similarly attuned to the sights and sounds of a particular city, Délio Jasse's "Terreno Ocupado" (2014), a series of dreamlike vignettes of Luanda by day, consists of twenty-four cerulean cyanotypes. Using color and a heavily manual printing process as an abstracting filter, Jasse opens up gaps of time and space, producing palimpsests of Luandan city scenes. Such structures resonate with Edson Chagas's approach in "Found Not Taken" (2008–ongoing): portraying broken chair frames, a disused satellite dish, and empty bottles juxtaposed against evocative backgrounds, Chagas turns everyday objects into abstract, ambiguous sculptures.

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François-Xavier Gbré, Appartement du directeur I, Imprimerie Nationale, Porto Novo, from "Tracks," 2012

François-Xavier Gbré's series "Tracks" (2009–16) also deals with the symbolism of once-valorized objects now left behind. His images of interior scenes and the surfaces of abandoned buildings constructed during the colonial era or at the moment of independence sustain an examination of aesthetic and sociopolitical forces on architecture. Simon Gush's "The Island" (2014–16) similarly tracks history through structures, but along the lines of aesthetics of labor. His black-and-white photographs of industrial landscapes in Lesotho provide a contemplative study of the sites and subjectivities produced by work in order to deconstruct the legacies of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.

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Simon Gush, "The Island", 2014–16
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While many photographers in the White Cube deploy the camera to contemplate structures of politics, identity, and history, Mame-Diarra Niang uses it as a tool for in-depth philosophical research, crystallizing impressions of scenes she later pieces together to form an abstracted, metaphorical landscape. In what she terms "the plasticity of territory," this personalization of space and distance serves to manifest Niang's agency, which she extends to the viewer, encouraging them to join her in a direct line across cities, cultures, and landscapes. In a different vein, Zina Saro-Wiwa engages the camera in order to allude to characters of personal meaning. With a suite of striking self-portraits, Saro-Wiwa's "The Invisible Man" (2015) portrays the artist wearing a neo-Ogoni mask of her own making. Recalling the title of Ralph Ellison's seminal text, the series ruminates on the men who have disappeared in Saro-Wiwa's life due to death or estrangement.

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Em'kal Eyongakpa, "Ketoya Speaks," 2016

Em'kal Eyongakpa's "Ketoya Speaks" (2016) confronts the viewer in a similar fashion, yet embedded with an overarching rejection of absolute truth or reality. Melding vocabularies of abstraction and the sustained examination of specific localities, Eyongakpa's long exposures deconstruct the elements of the body, abstracting them in time and space. He creates a mosaic of separate narratives that circulate around and within the history of Ketoya, an enclave village in southwest Cameroon. Such attention to narrative and register echoes within Eyongakpa's À Suivre! (2012), which features a single-breasted jacked with steam emitting from within, presenting fragmented and overlapped political speeches from Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Barack Obama, and Nicolas Sarkozy, among others.

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Dawit L. Petros, Tra il dire e il fare c'è in mezzo il mare, Lampedusa, Italy, from "The Stranger's Notebook," 2016

In the upper level of the White Cube, one encounters a multi-media installation from Dawit L. Petros's "The Stranger's Notebook" (2016), which tracks history through movement and structures. In 2014, Petros embarked on a thirteen-month field trip, during which he traversed borders across Africa and Europe in order to compare a contemporary social experience of moving between certain regions with past and prevalent narratives of mobility.

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The Black House: Social Life, Emotional Cartographies

The second curatorial thread of Recent Histories—mainly located in the Black House and in the Green House—centers on the human figure, as it moves through geographies, contemplates communities, or remains dislocated and billowing restlessly. The artists in this part of the exhibition present compassionate and varied portrayals of African individuals, providing fertile ground to mine the complex manifestations of the black body within visual imagery and social life. Harnessing the photographic image as tool of investigation and documentation, and ranging across expanses of geographic space to concentrated sites within a single city, these artists deploy the medium with a humanistic intent, to tell stories of those made visible and invisible—and pulling us ever closer.

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Andrew Esiebo, "Highlife," 2013–16

Featuring the work of Andrew Esiebo and Zina Saro-Wiwa, The Black House presents series pertaining to social lives, which portray individuals as they navigate across and within specific shared spaces, and in doing so reveal the intertwined relationship between human behavior and the environment. Andrew Esiebo's multilayered, high-spirited, and colorful tableaux of Lagosian party scenes in "Highlife" (2013–16) are the product of three years spent at clubs and parties, which serve a growing community of partygoers. These spaces operate as sites for projecting success and perceived accomplishments, as well as nodes that gather the hopes and aspirations of many Lagosians. At the same time, the clubs serve as means to escape the hardships and convoluted structures of day-to-day life with which most city inhabitants are familiar. "Mutation" (2015–ongoing), another long-term series by Esiebo, focuses on the city's complex built structures and its different architectural layers. These images testify to Lagos' rapid transformation--of modernization and progress--but at the same time of expropriation, displacement, gentrification, and the ongoing reorganization of traditional habitats.

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Zina Saro-Wiwa, Alex Eats Roasted Cocoyam with Palm Oil, from "Table Manners," 2014–16

Deeply invested in all social aspects of culture and community in the Niger Delta, Zina Saro-Wiwa unflinchingly humanizes and expands on widespread imagery that characterizes this oil-rich region of Nigeria as a site of exploitation and environmental ruin. This intention is interwoven with the mundane in works such as "Table Manners" (2014–16), in which eight subjects from Ogoniland, Nigeria each eat a customary local meal from start to finish. Burps, loud crunches, gulps and sighs of satisfaction provide an intimate soundtrack that precipitates feelings ranging from nostalgia to fascination—and allow the viewer to immerse oneself into aspects of culture and community in the Niger Delta.

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The Green House: Social Life, Emotional Cartographies

The Green House features the work of artists who ruminate on experiences that are highly subjective and at times ephemeral. Many of the artists within the house are graduates of the Market Photo Workshop—a school, gallery, and project space that has played a pivotal role in training South African photographers in visual literacy and documentary photography. Founded by photographer David Goldblatt in Johannesburg in 1989, the institution took an active part in the country's democratic turn, as it provided educational access to black South Africans, which had been previously denied. These artists provide fertile ground to mine the complex manifestations of the black body within visual imagery and social life. The works are linked together through the emotional ties that forge communities amongst artists and sometimes separate souls between this life and the next. Harnessing the camera as a tool to span expanses of geographic space to concentrated sites within a single city, these artists deploy the medium with a humanistic intent, to tell stories of those made visible and invisible.

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Thabiso Sekgala, Samuel or Thulani Msiza, Loding, fromer KwaNdebele, from "Homeland," 2010

The late Thabiso Sekgala's contemplative portraits of youth in the former Homelands of South Africa bear witness to the artist's uncanny feel for the figure in the landscape. His softly colored images evoke tenderness, even nostalgia, yet speak of their subjects with an unflinching directness. In doing so, Sekgala's photographs tell stories beyond apartheid, visual clichés, and social prejudices. Exhibited on the same level is Mimi Cherono Ng'ok's Do You Miss Me? Sometimes, Not Always (2017). With her site-specific installation, Cherono presents a work that is a deeply intimate and emotional attempt to cope with the death of Sekgala. In resolutely aligning her work with the emotions that push and pull her through life, Cherono uses the camera to record specific locations, people, and subject matter that consciously and unconsciously try to reconcile matters of the heart.

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Mimi Cherono Ng'ok, Do You Miss Me? Sometimes, Not Always, 2017
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Lebohang Kganye's series "Ke Lefa Laka" (2013) also deals with the death of a beloved person. After her mother's passing, Kganye dressed and posed in her mother's image, photographed herself, and then superimposed her images onto old family album pictures. The resulting works are eerily beautiful, depicting the figural forms of these two women separated by time and circumstance, but united in familial lineage and through photography. Featuring party scenes, with Kganye raising a glass to toast amongst her mother and her friends, many of these images provide an intimate look into black female South African subjectivity during apartheid and post, collapsing time through the shared gestures of mother and daughter.

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Lebohang Kganye, "Ke Lefa Laka," 2013
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The tenderness palpable in Kganye and Cherono's images is also interspersed throughout Sabelo Mlangeni's engagement with a rather different subject within South Africa—the fractured rhythms of everyday life in the city of Johannesburg. "Big City" provides an unexpectedly varied and revealing backdrop against which to view Mlangeni's known practice. A heralded portraitist and documentarian of South African communities, Mlangeni completed series such as "No Problem" (2011–13), "My Storie" (2012), and "Country Girls" (2003–09) while developing this project. "Big City" is thus revealed as a kind of lodestar and psychological through-line that spans his career in photography. Mlangeni's monochrome images, which detail and annotate the crevices and micro-cultures of Johannesburg, are developed from the idea of home while simultaneously considering the city as a non-home, a non-place. In negotiating his conflicted relationship with Johannesburg, which ultimately unravels into an ode to the city's variousness, Mlangeni balances and connects emotional memories and physical spaces.

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Sabelo Mangeni, Crossing, Between Eloff and Bree Street, from "Big City," 2008

Such nuanced outlooks are employed in Mame-Diarra Niang's latest video work, Eating the Sky (2017), which is debuting at the Green House. This work is an extension of Niang's philosophical approach to the photographic works on view in the White Cube, bringing notions of space beyond the physical into the metaphysical. Additionally, five video pieces by Simon Gush from his "Work Essays" are on view in the Green House. In one, Calvin and Holiday (2014) we are exposed to Gush's visit to Geneva—a fitting vacation destination for completing research on the origins of Calvinism and the Protestant "work ethic." Effecting a stream-of-consciousness narration, his contemplative studies of the sites and subjectivities produced by this work deconstruct the legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

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Press reviews

Recent Histories: Okwui Enwezor and Artur Walther on African Photography

Curator Okwui Enwezor and collector Artur Walther discuss African photography, past and future. This interview is adapted from the catalog Recent Histories, published by Steidl and The Walther Collection in May 2017.

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