Presented as part of the citywide “Une Saison Photo” photography event in Toulouse, France, the exhibition “A History of Contemporary African Art” at Les Abattoirs pays tribute to Revue Noire, which was co-founded by Jean-Loup Pivin, Simon Njami, Pascal Martin Saint-Léon and Bruno Tilliette in 1991.
Thirty years ago, few people in the art world were interested in Africa. The images of the continent that circulated at the time were primarily news images of famines and wars. At best, people had an exotic vision of it. You had to be an expert or personally passionate about it, like these four men, to go beyond the clichés “and to want to show the world the modernity of Africa at a time when the Internet did not yet exist,” notes Jean-Loup Pivin. Revue Noire gave itself one rule of thumb: for each project, work with a local editorial board. While the magazine closed its doors in 2000 after putting out 35 issues, the adventure continued with the publication of art books.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition is structured in four parts that highlight the evolution and diversity of the various photographic styles over the decades. It starts out with anonymous black-and-white studio photos taken in the 1920s, small original vintage prints paired with large-format reproductions. Then comes the next generation and its big names, who – according to their country of origin – took these classic studio photos and made them their own.
Each photographer brought to it the singularity of his culture and his own unique gaze. To wit: the sensuality in the work of Mama Casset, the trailblazer, who invited the Dakar bourgeoisie into her studio in the Senegalese capital; the creativity of Seydou Keïta, from Mali, who often relied on the interaction between clothes and sets, not to mention his mastery of the models’ poses: “The technique behind the photo is simple, but what made all the difference, is that I knew how to find the right position,” he explained. In the 1980s, the arrival of color breathed new life into the art, as in South Africa, with Bob Bobson. While the poses are classic, in the decor we can see the backstage of the studio.
Another major shift occurred when the photographers left the studio. Such is the case of Jean Depara who, in the 1950s to 1970s, captured the festive atmosphere of bars at night, and, during the day, the gyms and the swimming pool of the Congolese capital. In the city of Niamey, Niger, Philippe Koudjina also photographed local youth, as well as visiting celebrities, from Maria Callas to Johnny Halliday.
The section of the exhibition focused on the decades 1980 to 2000 demonstrates that African photographers broke free from tradition to develop their own approaches: be it Samuel Fosso and his early self-portraits; the identity quests of David Damoison, shot in color in Martinique or elsewhere; the street photos of Abidjan’s mentally ill by Dorris Haron Kasco; the sensual, ritualistic staging by Rotimi Fani-Kayode; or the outrageous fashion photos of Patrice Félix Tchicaya, it’s an exhibition filled with wonderful discoveries!
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
“A history of Contemporary African Art,” through August 9, 2021. Les Abattoirs, Musée-Frac Occitanie, 76 Allées Charles de Fitte, Toulouse, France. Complete information here.
Histoire histoires, a book by Jean Loup Pivin, Simon Njami, Pascal Martin Saint Leon, and Bruno Tilliette, recounts the journey of Revue Noire in words and images. 400 pages, 450 color reproductions, bilingual French / English, 45 €.