‘We choose which Africa suits our intentions, or, as it were, our inventions’ says Okwui Enwezor in his outstanding and brilliant catalogue text, defining a state of mind he calls ‘Afro-pessimism’ wherein the use of photography has contributed to ‘perpetuate a uniform, fixed and singular approach to the study of Africa’.
Snap Judgements is a collaboration between Steidl and the International Center of Photography, New York and is, in effect, the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name. However ‘catalogue’ does not do justice to this immense and ambitious project, which gathers images from ethnic artists, each with a different agenda and perspective. The selected images ably illustrate the diversity of the culture and dynamic changes being made to the fabric of African society and its environment. But, of course, Africa is an unfathomable equation, not only to the West but to African intellectuals, and its myriad of problems constantly demand a myriad of differing ‘solutions’. It might be telling that many of the ‘ethnic’ artists included in this collection are expatriate, or were born outside the African mass. Enwezor is himself Dean of Academic Affairs at San Francisco Art Institute, with a host of luminous art world appointments to his name and a home in New York. Perhaps this intellectual (and physical) dichotomy is necessary to enable any sort of perspective and emotional analysis to have meaning.
None of the photographers featured are, or have been, immune to the ‘internationalism’ of the photograph as an exhibited artform. Zwelethu Mthethwa, for example, whilst being born in Durban and living in Cape Town, and providing the stunning cover shot, is represented by a New York Gallery (Jack Shainman). Interpretative photographic manipulations, as in the work of Allan deSouza (born Nairobi, lives LA) and Hentje van der Merwe (born Namibia, lives Antwerp) are at once familiar to a world gallery-going audience. So – unlike parallel developments in African painting and sculpture which have a singular identity – it is essentially the content, subject and conceptual approach that makes these images intrinsically ‘African’. The presence ‘overseas’ of African artists is nothing new and is examined by Enwezor in depth, for example, one of the founding members of CoBrA was South African, Ernest Mancoba. But it has taken time for African society to interface with the global perspective and to subdue the historical and political, post colonial, dynamic that tainted its sense of self and that of outsiders. This is an important, documentary record of a seminal collection of photographs – and a truly impressive undertaking by Okwui Enwezor.