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The Poetry of the Topsy-Turvy Disarray of African Cities

The Poetry of the Topsy-Turvy Disarray of African Cities

The exhibition “Hybrid Cities” explores the notion of Africanness by showcasing images by five photographers from the African continent who choose cities as their subjects.
Andrew Esebio, Mutations series, 2015 – in progress. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary.

We walk around trees, we walk on leaves, we see through this branch or the other a photograph or a section that we missed the first time around, we get lost in the Travelers’ Garden, formerly known as the green space of the Arles train station, as we meander through the exhibition “African State of Mind – Hybrid Cities,” the brainchild of the author, critic and curator Ekow Eshun, who is also the former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It feels ironic when, in the middle of all the greenery and the photographs, a train goes by at full speed nearby, taking us by surprise. As it does so, the city, modernity, come to interfere with nature and that is what the exhibition is about: about hyper urbanization, or about how man adapts to a constantly changing environment.  

Presented at the 2021 Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, in France, this exhibition is part of a larger “Africa State of Mind” project, a book of which was released in April 2020 by Thames and Hudson. In the book, Eshun brought together several emerging photographers from across the African continent. Through four themes –“Hybrid cities,” “Interior landscapes,” “Zones of Freedom” and Myth and memory,” the book explores Africa as a psychological, architectural and geographical space. It seeks to question, through the eyes of photographers from the continent, the notion of Africanness and the different ways of “being African.” 

Hicham Gardaf, Khouribga, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie 127.
Girma Berta, Moving Shadows II, VIII, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Addis Fine Art.

“Hybrid Cities” features photographers who focus on large African cities, some of which, like Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa, are considered “megacities” with populations that soar above ten million. In an interview with Love Magazine, Eshun said, “I don’t think you can walk around an African city without remembering the different layers of history that have taken place there; layers of colonial history, stories of independence from the 1960s to the 1970s, a more current period of urban expansion and neoliberal ambition. All of these things are found in the streets and through the people.” From movement, change, overlapping, the Africa revealed in this exhibition is a real but also imaginary place whose identities fuse in all directions. 

From the noisy and throbbing Ethiopian capital of Addis-Ababa, where Gima Berta, who likes to capture “the beautiful, the ugly and everything in between” of his native town, zooms in on each of the inhabitants and takes them out of their true context; to Lagos, one of the ten largest cities in the world, where Andrew Esiebo captures the cacophony and finds in his images an unexpected harmony – “I am struck by the powerful spirit and the inventiveness of the people of Lagos, their infinitely creative ways of surviving,” he says – all the way to the East African coast–Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia– where, in a land ravaged by civil wars and corrupt dictatorships, men and women alike try as best they can to reclaim the ocean, which Guillaume Bonn perceives beyond the desolate landscapes. Moments of beauty through which the photographers here pay a vibrant tribute to the inhabitants in images that raise them up. 

Guillaume Bonn, Apartment building with a view of downtown Maputo.
Emmanuelle Andrianjafy, Nothing is in vain series, 2015.

“When I look at some of these photos, what I see is a world in motion – something that is changing and reinventing itself,” says the exhibition curator about “these cities and places that will continue to move and change rather quickly”. We can infer from his words that Africanness, carried by the behavior of the people who live there, is a moving, changing identity, always open to being reinterpreted, much like these photographed cities, which, imbued with both modernity and tradition, are adapting to their era. 

By Sabyl Ghoussoub

“African state of mind – Hybrid Cities”, Emmanuelle Andrianjafy, Girma Berta, Guillaume Bonn, Andrew Esebio, and Hicham Gardaf. Exhibition curator: Ekow Eshun. The Travelers’ Garden (as part of the 2021 Rencontres d’Arles photography festival), through September 29, 2021. 

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