In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
– August 31, 2015–January 3, 2016 –
In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa presents nearly 100 years of portrait photography in West Africa through approximately 80 photographs from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s holdings (mainly from the Visual Resource Archives in the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs). This focused installation shows how renowned photographers such as Seydou Keïta and earlier practitioners such as the Lutterodt brothers, working both inside and outside the studio, mastered the art of portraiture, capturing their sitters as they skillfully fashioned their own image.
The installation juxtaposes the works of photographers active across West Africa—from Senegal to Cameroon, and Mali to Gabon—from the 1890s to the 1970s. Among them are renowned African photographers, such as Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, and Samuel Fosso, and lesser-known practitioners who worked at the beginning of the century, including the Lutterodt brothers and Alex A. Acolatse. A thread running through all of the images, regardless of their place in the history of photography in West Africa—from the rigidity of the earlier studio poses to the fluidity of Fosso’s fantasies—is the sitter’s direct, unabashed expression in front of the camera, fully engaging the viewer. The selection of photographs traces the development of portraiture through the changing conditions of production, including the physical aspect of photographs, their patronage, and reception.
Drawing upon original research by specialist Giulia Paoletti, the exhibition demonstrates that, contrary to common assumptions, early photography in Africa was not the monopoly of Europeans. When photography arrived on the continent, as early as the 1840s, the technology was appropriated by local communities who adapted the new medium according to preexisting visual codes and traditions of portraiture. By the 1880s, European, West-African, and African-American photographers traveled along the Atlantic coast and founded temporary and permanent studios catering to the local elite. By the 1920s, significant West African urban centers had a deeply rooted photographic culture: photography had dramatically impacted notions of personhood. Photographic practices were part of a global network of exchange enabled by the circulation of goods, technologies, images, and people. More than any other medium, photography inserted Africans into a global visual economy—as producers, consumers, and subjects.
In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa is curated by Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator in the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum, together with specialist Giulia Paoletti, and in collaboration with the Museum’s Department of Photographs and Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Installation Location: Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, The Gioconda and Joseph King Gallery, south mezzanine, Gallery 916