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Revue Noire, History of African Photography

A new exhibition celebrates the work of African photographers who transformed contemporary art across the continent — and beyond.

Between 1991 and 2001, Revue Noire brought contemporary African photography to the world, showcasing the groundbreaking advancements in the art that had defined the image of Africa on a journey to independence that began in 1847, less than a decade after the invention of photography. 

From the outset Europeans used the photography as a tool to subjugate the Global South, creating images that served racist ideologies, while typifying indigenous arts as “primitive” and relegating it to the periphery of the art world. But marginalization and erasure could neither stop nor diminish the work of African artists, who quickly developed their own visual language of photography to communicate wholly original ideas of style, identity, self-determination, and agency.

Kinshasa, RDCongo, 1939 © Antoine Freitas
Kinshasa, RDCongo, 1939 © Antoine Freitas

As the African Independence Movement of the mid-twentieth century came to a close, a new era emerged: one of free expression across the arts born of deeper traditions while pushing the boundaries forward. “Just as the contemporary African artist saw themselves as artist, rather than an African artist the artist in Africa wanted to escape the expected codes of their assigned cultural identity,” writes curator Jean Loup Pivin in Revue Noire: Histoire Histories / History Stories, the exquisitely layered catalogue accompanying the landmark exhibition, The Spirit of Revue Noire: A Founding Collection.  

Pivin co-founded Revue Noire with curator Pascal Martin Saint Léon, writer/curator Simon Njami, and publisher/writer Bruno Tilliette as a multidisciplinary platform for the arts that included a publishing house and a production company for documentary films, short films, videos, and music. During the quarterly magazine’s storied 10-year run, Revue Noire published the work of more than 3,500 African artists, offering intricate explorations the many-faceted approaches to contemporary art across the continent — and beyond.

Bangui, Central African Republic, 1970s © Samuel Fosso
Bangui, Central African Republic, 1970s © Samuel Fosso
Niamey, Niger, 1970 © Philippe Koudjina
Niamey, Niger, 1970 © Philippe Koudjina

Center of the World

Photography lay at the heart of Revue Noire, a practice that offered challenging, revelatory, and innovative conversations about the form. Artists like Samuel Fosso, Jean Depara, Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Mama Casset, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode — whose work is on view in The Spirit of Revue Noire: A Founding Collection — deftly crafted their own visual languages to explore notions of African identity, aesthetics and expression.

“Certainly like literature, photography is not a question of soul but above all a question of memory,” writer and curator Simon Njami observes in the essay “A Dress So Red,” which appears in the beginning of the chapter dedicated to photography in Revue Noire: Histoire Histories / History Stories

Greetings from the Sappers of the nightclub, Kinshasa, 1950-1965
Greetings from the Sappers of the nightclub, Kinshasa, 1950-1965

Imbued with the power to render reality as it seems to occur, photographs don’t just preserve individual memories; they become a patchwork of the collective consciousness that reimagine the times in which we live. Forming our past and present, they shape notions of what the future holds as they become cultural touchstones. 

With the understanding that “seeing is believing,” Revue Noire questions our assumptions and beliefs, understanding that to simply give way to conventional thought it a recipe for disaster. Recognizing that writing like photography is a quest to affix permanence in an ever-changing world, the founders of Revue Noire take great care to remind us not to merely give ourselves over to the sensual pleasures of art and to confront the deeper existential crises it exposes.

Dakar, Senegal © Mama Casset
Dakar, Senegal © Mama Casset

“Stopping time and imposing one’s rhythm on it,” Njami writes. “Plugging the gaping hoes gulfs. Silencing the fear of not knowing. The fear that one will never know. A vain quest for utopia. Refusal to sink into madness. We invent nothing. We misremember. We misunderstand. We manage to find a little strength in the very insignificance of the things that remain.”

Niamey, Niger, 1969 © Philippe Koudjina
Niamey, Niger, 1969 © Philippe Koudjina
Ifé, Nigeria-London, U.K, 1989 © Rotami Fani-Kayodé
Ifé, Nigeria-London, U.K, 1989 © Rotami Fani-Kayodé
Young lady in in front of the Afro Negro Club, Kinshasa, 1950-65
Young lady in in front of the Afro Negro Club, Kinshasa, 1950-65. © Jean Depara

The Spirit of Revue Noire: A Founding Collection is on view through March 31, 2023, at Hakanto Contemporary in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Revue Noire: Histoire Histories / History Stories is published by Éditions Revue Noire, €45.00

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