This exhibition presents one hundred years of portrait photography in West Africa through nearly eighty photographs taken between the 1870s and the 1970s. These works, many of which are being shown for the first time, are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's Visual Resource Archives in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs.
The installation seeks to expand our understanding of West African portrait photography by rendering the broad variety of these practices and aesthetics. It juxtaposes photographs, postcards, real photo postcards, and original negatives taken both inside and outside the studio by amateur and professional photographers active from Senegal to Cameroon and from Mali to Gabon. Among them are renowned artists such as Seydou Keïta, J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, and Samuel Fosso, as well as lesser-known practitioners who worked at the beginning of the century, including George A. G. Lutterodt, the Lisk-Carew Brothers, and Alex A. Acolatse. These photographers explored the possibilities of their medium, developing a rich aesthetic vocabulary through compelling self-portraits, staged images against painted backdrops or open landscapes, and casual snapshots of leisurely times. Regardless of their unique place in the history of photography in West Africa—from the formality of the earlier studio poses to the theatricality of Fosso's fantasies—the sitter's self-assured and unabashed presence fully engages the viewer.
Photography allowed artists and patrons alike to express their articulation of what modernity looked like—one that was constantly reinvented.
Photography arrived on the African continent as early as the 1840s. In a relatively short time, local communities adapted this new medium according to preexisting visual codes and traditions of portraiture. Starting in the 1860s, West African, Asian, European, and even African American photographers traveled along the Atlantic coast and founded temporary and permanent studios that catered to the local elite. At these studios, patrons carefully picked their style of dress and coiffures, and inaugurated the poses that would become the canon in photographic practices. For instance, in the 1870s, Gerhardt Lutterodt established himself as a photographer in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. With his two brothers, he taught many apprentices and studio owners in the region, including Alex Agbaglo Acolatse. After training in Ghana, Acolatse set up his own practice around 1900 in neighboring Togo. In addition to his portraits of the upper class, Acolatste is known for having documented the social and political life of the then-German colony, and through photographs that circulated also as postcards.
Postcards are images that are designed to travel: they are inexpensive, portable, and made in multiples. From 1900 to 1960, the total production of postcard series in West Africa reached almost nine thousand; in Senegal alone there were more than two dozen producers. While this industry served and supported the agenda of colonial powers, postcards were not the sole domain of Europeans—on the contrary, this medium was embraced by African practitioners and consumers.
While the original circumstances of production are difficult to retrace precisely, there is evidence that local customers commissioned portraits, which subsequently circulated (with or without their permission) in the form of postcards. Due to this complex process of image making and distribution, these portraits acquired unexpected meanings across time and space.
This section presents portraits created by African and European photographers for both local and international audiences. Alphonso Lisk Carew, for example, was a Creole photographer working with his brother Arthur in Sierra Leone, while Demba N'Diaye was a Senegalese editor based in Gabon in the 1900s. These entrepreneurs made a wide variety of images in a range of formats, including postcards, to satisfy their diverse clientele and to compete with European rivals such as French photographer François-Edmond Fortier, one of the most prolific postcard producers in West Africa at the turn of the century.
This section presents some of the earliest known images captured by amateur photographers in Saint-Louis, Senegal, from the 1910s to the 1940s. As the historical capital of French West Africa, Saint-Louis held a privileged position within the colonial empire: not only did the latest technology tend to arrive to its harbor first, but it also was home to a cosmopolitan population that was granted French citizenship, at least since the late nineteenth century.
While the names of these amateurs remain unknown, the images they produced provide clues about their identities. As suggested by the outfits and the spaces their subjects inhabit, it appears that one photographer was a métis, an individual with mixed French and Senegalese ancestry, while another was a Wolof, a member of the dominant ethnic group in Senegal. Unlike their professional colleagues, these figures did not work within a formal studio space or frame their sitters against signature backdrops. Rather, they took pictures during their leisure time, walking with their cameras through the cityscape, using these fortuitous locations as the setting for their compositions. Thanks to the development of cheaper and more portable cameras, photographers were able to break from the stiffness of early portraits, and sitters could more freely perform their joy or melancholy. These snapshots, lovingly displayed in homes and archived in albums, document the birth of a new identity, one that neither mimicked French customs nor neatly corresponded to Senegalese cultures.
By the 1950s, ten years before Senegal gained independence from France, portrait photography had become a lucrative and flourishing business across the country, even outside the main urban centers. While photographers often did not sign their prints, each developed their own aesthetic and cultivated a unique clientele. Mama and Salla Casset were among the most popular photographers in Dakar. Born to a middle-class Saint-Louisian family, the Casset brothers began their careers in the 1910s as assistants to French photographers Tennequin and Oscar Lataque, and eventually established individual studios in the capital in the early 1940s.
As urban photographers, their customers were the ascending middle-class population, whose taste and imagination were fed and nourished by burgeoning mass-media culture, including popular magazines and films from North Africa, Europe, India, and the United States. Mama Casset experimented with artificial lighting and close framing. He often blurred the background in order to enhance the sitter's facial features, eyes, expressions, and hand gestures. In modulating the image's sharpness and tonal contrasts, Casset created dynamic images that enthrone the sitter like a film star under the spotlight.
Malick Sidibé is known for his dynamic shots of Malian culture of the 1960s, during the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial era. After studying with French photographer Gérard Guillat-Guignard, he established a studio, in 1962, in Bamako. Sidibé captured the exuberance and turbulence of the younger generation that was immersed in Pan-African and diasporic cultures. His photographic practice took him outside the studio to snap youths swimming at the beach, dancing to James Brown, and even kissing.
These vintage prints present images taken in the studio and in private homes. Generally about the size of postcards, Sidibé's photographs were cherished objects that were commissioned, exchanged, framed, and often hung in domestic interiors. This installation interprets the intimacy of this viewing experience, inviting the visitor to come closer.
The juxtaposition of photographs by Seydou Keïta with those by Oumar Ka reveals the variety of portraiture practices across West Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Bamako in the early 1920s, Keïta is one of the most celebrated photographers in Mali. He learned darkroom techniques from photographer Pierre Garnier and others in Bamako, where he eventually launched his own studio, in 1948. In just over a decade, he produced around ten thousand negatives of the Bamakois elite. In these images, backdrops, clothing, accessories, and postures were meticulously and collaboratively selected to fashion the subject's chosen identity. Yet it was Keïta's camera that turned the sitter into a new Bamakois: his photographs recount and created the myth of Bamako as a cosmopolitan and modern city.
Trained under Senegalese photographer Cheikh Kane, Oumar Ka began his practice as an itinerant photographer in 1959 before opening his own studio in the city of Touba, Senegal, in 1968. Rather than representing the upper class, Ka portrays the rural communities living in the interior of Senegal. He traveled from village to village, taking portraits with the only tools he could carry: his Rolleiflex camera and a monochromatic backdrop. Rather than cropping the image close to the sitter or modulating sharp tonal contrasts through backdrops like Keïta, Ka maintains a respectful distance from his patrons that allows us to glimpse local architecture, private interiors, and landscapes. While different in their aesthetic and clientele, both photographers successfully visualized and shaped the aspirations of their sitters.
With the development of photographic technology, the advent of color printing, and the establishment of a global art market, the canon of portrait photography expanded as artists further explored the possibilities of the medium. J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere was a pioneer of documentary photography in Nigeria. For instance, beginning in 1968, he produced an impressive portfolio of two thousand negatives that document the ways in which women styled their hair into monumental headdresses. In his hands, photography became a means to record the transient creativity that articulated Nigerian social and cultural life.
Of Cameroonian origins, Samuel Fosso learned photography during the 1970s in the Central African Republic, where he eventually opened a studio. He became known for his extravagant self-portraits, which he took at the end of a working day. For these images, he experimented with props and outfits in order to perform his different personas. Both Ojeikere and Fosso investigate the limits of portrait photography, questioning the distinction between sitter and photographer, document and artwork, reality and fantasy.