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Africa, but not as you know it: Ekow Eshun and the power of photography

Posted on 27 Mar 2020

Vibrant, urgent, defiant: the photographs in ‘Africa State of Mind’ comprise an important and dazzling riposte to Western representations of Africa. We spoke to author Ekow Eshun about what it means to be African today.

Image: Ruth Ossai, Kingsley Ossai, Nsukka, Enugu state, Nigeria, 2017

Ekow, thanks so much for taking the time two tell us about your new book. First up, perhaps you can tell us a little more about the four thematic areas you’ve chosen to present these photographers and their work?

Sure. Africa State of Mind is organised around four themes. ‘Hybrid Cities’ considers photography centred on the African metropolis as a site of rapid social transformation. ‘Zones of Freedom’ brings together photographers whose works explore questions of gender, sexuality and identity. ‘Myth and Memory’ looks at how photographers are turning the legacy of the continent’s history into the source of resonant new dreamscapes. ‘Inner Landscapes’ offers highly subjective visions of African identity, in the process interrogating prevailing ideas of Africa and ‘Africanness’.

Image: courtesy of Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD. Night of the Long Knives I, 2013

In exploring ideas and identities of ‘Africanness’, was it also important to you to bring across regional or even national distinctions in photographic practice? Do you notice particular trends in particular parts of the continent?

I’ve actually been keen to steer away from looking at the continent too rigidly. For sure, there are certain approaches that are stronger in particular areas. For instance, Southern Africa has a very strong documentary photography tradition and you can trace a practice in portrait photography in West Africa back in fact to the mid-19th century. But most photographers today, wherever they’re based have a very international perspective, in that they’re drawing influences from all over the world in addition to exploring their immediate surroundings and circumstances. So I’ve been more interested in trying to see Africa through the breadth of perspective and imaginative reach that they bring to the subject rather than necessarily trying to impose a geographic structure on top of what they’re doing. I’m interested in Africa as a psychological space, a territory of the imagination as much as a physical territory. Hence the title of the book.

The collection is an important and dazzling riposte to Western representations of Africa. In surveying the work of this new generation of African photographers, what do you see as the most powerful tools and strategies in their own narrative building?

The book is about photographers articulating themselves above all else as artists first, free to define the world on their own personal terms. As a medium, photography has played a significant role in shaping external views of Africa. Ethnographic-style imagery of the colonial period presented Africans as the primitive people of a dark continent. Contemporary news reports still often portray the continent as a place of corruption and disease. Such images gain their power by shrouding bias beneath a cloak of objectivity. By contrast the photographers in the book embrace the subjective, the particular and the personal perspectives as a way to build their own counter-narratives of what it looks like, and how it feels, to live in Africa today.

Image: © jodibieber, Babalwa, 2014

The photographers featured in ‘Zones of Freedom’ make powerful visual claims in relation to understanding gender and sexuality. I’m thinking in particular of Zanele Muholi’s ‘black queer and trans visual history’ of South Africa. How does their work challenge this post-colonial, patriarchal nation building? 

Many of the photographers in ‘Zones of Freedom’ are working within societies where socially conservative views on sexuality and gender predominate. For example, homosexuality is outlawed in 34 out of Africa’s 55 nations. Against that backdrop, the work of photographers such as Zanele Muholi, Sabelo Mlangeni and  Eric Gyamfi takes on a dual role. It is both individual artistic expression and a form of political activism; a means to positively assert LGBT+ identity in straitened circumstances.

Additionally, their work can also be taken as a critique of the notion that African societies are irredeemably homophobic. Gyamfi’s portraits of LGBT+ kinship and community in Ghana, and Mlangeni’s Country Girls photo series, set in rural South Africa, point to the ways that queer identities and lifestyles are woven into the fabric of everyday African society.

Other photographers go beyond specific issues of sexuality. For instance, the British-Nigerian photographer Ruth Ossai explore representations of masculinity in Nigeria in the process revealing gender as a complex, fluid and performative proposition.

Image: © Eric Gyamfi, Nana and Razak, 2016

The section ‘Hybrid Cities’ offers a powerful account of African urbanisation, but it also explores alternative modes of living within cities. Can you tell us a bit more about some of those visions of – and for – the African city as a space for reimagining social and economic organisation?

‘Hybrid Cities’ brings together photography centred on the African metropolis as a site of rapid social transformation. Of the largest cities in Africa, three – Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa – can be classed as megacities, conurbations with a population of over 10 million. That number is set to double by 2030. Amid such rapid urbanisation, characterised by ceaseless flows of people, goods and capital, a state of permanent change reigns. The works in ‘Hybrid Cities’ document the African city engaged at a period of unprecedented acceleration, revealing both the tensions and possibilities of that condition.

In the imagery of photographers such as Andrew Esiebo, Michael MacGarry and Francois-Xavier Gbre we see how societies and communities are evolving new ways of living and organising within the sprawl of the city.

Image: © Andrew Esiebo, Tafawa Balewa square bus stop, Lagos, 2015–19

Interview by Eliza Apperly

Related books

Africa State of Mind

Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent Ekow Eshun, Lina Iris Viktor
£39.95