Places and people are perennial subjects for photobooks, used as visual weapons that either create or subvert falsehoods.
As Martin Parr once pontificated, “All photography is propaganda.” Work by a single author may be capable of both, but it’s hard to deny that a collective of artists is a formidable force to reckon with when challenging how a place or race is perceived – particularly if they are those people, from that place.
Africa State of Mind is one such project. Less a photobook and more an anthology of homegrown artistic output exploring contemporary ‘Africanness’. The work depicts the continent not only as physical space, a geographical territory, but as a psychological state. It is a study of the photographers’ inner worlds, albeit painted with vivid colours and objects from without.
Though the works vary dramatically throughout the book, both stylistically and in terms of content, there is a cohesive sensuality throughout – a sexuality, even. However, on the third or fourth pass, you realise that this “exoticness” is being used as a device against you, or at least against the stereotypes that have been implanted in your mind by decades upon decades of work created by outsiders.
The stand-first reads: “Contemporary photography reimagines a continent”. But what is being reimagined here, exactly? Perhaps a better version may read: “The colonial gaze reimagined” or “A satire of the colonial gaze”. Though, to be fair, that wouldn’t do the book justice, for it does so much more.
As the text – of which there is a great deal – reveals: “They [the photos] are a ‘fictive portrayal’, consciously playing with Western cliches of the exotic even while striving to surmount such stereotypes.”
Some images celebrate harsh and sometimes scarred landscapes, contrasted with beautiful subjects garbed in lush and contemporary robes, gilt masks. Images that would sell many a copy of Vogue (another subversion).
Other photos pluck the subjects from the landscapes, using striking shadow play and chiaroscuro (or good ol’ fashioned Photoshop), to allow tradition to shine through – to allow you to properly see the people, rather than the harsh environments you are so often forced to focus and base your opinions on.
There are ultra stylistic images of disappearing Kenyan tribes, photos that might be challenged for being exploitative if not for being created by someone from within – from the place, of the people. Stunning yet sorrowful portraits that captivate and expose exactly what’s at stake.
In a Nutshell
Africa State of Mind presents a gorgeous selection of highly evocative images that provoke more and better thought with each look. But it’s important to remember that this is a reimagining – and not to forget who did (and didn’t) do the initial “imagining”.
This is what Africa looks like. Now. Today. This is what reclamation looks like.
Buy the Book for Your Collection
Africa State of Mind is a beautiful hardback photobook published by Thames & Hudson and is available to buy on Amazon from around £27.