« In and Out of the Studio » at the MET – Interview with Giulia Paoletti, co-curator
Giulia Paoletti is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University. A specialist of African art and photography, she holds a Ph.D. in art history (Columbia University, 2015). For her dissertation on the history of photography in Senegal she has conducted extensive fieldwork in the region. In 2015, she co-curated with Yaëlle Biro the exhibition « In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa » at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
How did your collaboration with the MET begin?
The main idea for the show emerged in 2013. At the time I had just completed my two-year field research in Senegal for my dissertation and received a Pre-doctoral Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum in the Department of the Arts of Africa Oceania and the Americas (AAOA). The fellowship gave me the unique chance to focus on my writing and use the wonderful resources available at the Met – libraries, specialists, and of course its prestigious collections.
In AAOA, I spent extensive time studying their Visual Resource Archive (VRA), which features an incredibly diverse collection ranging from fieldwork photographs to images of African art objects, from postcards to personal albums. As I was analyzing this material – and particularly that concerning Senegal – the AAOA Curator in Charge Alisa LaGamma gave me the opportunity to curate with Associate Curator Yaëlle Biro a small show in the departmental space. While the show was accessible only to the Met staff, it received positive feedback. Roughly at that time, a gallery became available in the Modern Wings and Alisa welcomed the opportunity to expand the show and open it to the larger audience.
Between 2013 and 2015, Yaëlle and I worked closely on this project studying the collection and making our selection. Needless to say other departments within the Met – from Conservation to Design, from Editorial to Photographs – played a crucial role in developing and finalizing the exhibition.
What were the main objectives of this exhibition?
This exhibition sought to expand the ways in which we understand photographic portraiture in Africa. We wanted to bring a novel perspective while also offer new material that would fill some gaps in the histories and canon of African photography. In this sense, there was a specific range of ideas that we wanted to get across – or to put it differently, a range of “myths” about photography in West Africa that we wanted to debunk. The core ideas of the show were elaborated in the different sections of the exhibition (i.e. pioneers, postcards, amateurs, studio photography, new avenues of portrait making). Some of these concepts built on the literature on African photography that has grown exponentially in the past decade. Some were based on my own research. Others emerged as we studied the works in the Met collection. I can however mention at least two more that run across the show.
By focusing on loosely one region [West Africa], we wanted to narrow down our field of enquiry and make visible the connections between people and places. As many scholars have demonstrated [starting with Erika Nimis], since the very beginning, photography in West Africa was an itinerant practice. Photographers moved between urban and rural areas, between their studio and intimate interiors. They travelled from city to city, from country to country. Patrons -as well as their own portraits- also moved across borders. That was the case for the Lutterodt family who traveled along the Gold Coast, as well as Khalilou and Demba N’Diaye who probably moved from Senegal all the way to Gabon to produce postcards. This itinerant quality is one that we wanted to highlight – in the title as well as in the actual exhibition. Many of the portraits in the exhibition and their aesthetic are the result of these trans-national (and often unexpected) networks of exchange.
A second point that shaped the exhibition related to the actual materiality of the photographic object. We purposefully chose to include as many “media” as possible. Viewers will see original negatives side-by-side recent prints produced at the Met; vintage prints by ‘unidentified photographers’ next to blow up prints signed and dated by the ‘artist;’ postcards printed in Europe and photo-cartes signed by Senegalese sitters. Some of these are tiny and bear the marks of their age; others are large and pristine. Rather than obliterating the complex history of these photographs as they were “discovered” by the Western art market, we wanted to make those complex transitions visible. With labels that recount these objects’ histories, viewers are encouraged to see these ruptures and decide how these qualities shape their response.
What challenges did you face in this project?
The short timing, gallery location, and budget did not allow us to borrow works from institutions outside the Met or organize special events – where we would have loved to collaborate with more specialists. Yet, the task of working within the Met collections was not a limitation but a very fruitful experience. It gave us the chance to study closely the Met holdings, both in AAOA and in the Department of Photographs, and make a very tight selection. Incidentally, two small groups of photos were acquired as we were working on the project and a few donors came forth with some stunning negatives and prints – one of which was later selected as the cover for the show. These lucky coincidences allowed us to prepare a show where the majority of works had never been exhibited.
In preparing the exhibition, a second challenge also emerged as we were trying to attribute images. While some photographs were signed and dated, many were not. At times we were able to work with specialists such as Erin Haney and Julie Crooks who helped us identify the author and the date. But in the case of the postcards, studio portraits and amateur photographers more work needs to be done to unpack those images.
What ideas triggered this exhibition? How do they relate to the way in which West African photography is usually shown in the West?
Photographic portraiture from Africa is often collapsed with images produced in the independence era by a handful of artists. Since photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé had gained international recognition in the early 1990s, African photography has achieved substantial currency in the art market in a way that has hardly been replicated by other non-Western photographers. In the past three decades numerous exhibitions have been organized all over the world often focusing of these few figures celebrating the emergence of a truly original photographic practice. Building on these contributions, In and out of the Studio sought to expand the canon, by including new genres and authors, as well as show that those artists of the independence era did not emerge in a vacuum.
Rather than offering a broad overview or a comprehensive survey, the show wanted to provide a more nuanced and diversified insight on portrait-making. By including professional and amateur, rural and urban photographers, formal and snapshot portraits we sought to open new avenues of enquiry. Sidibé and Keita are certainly part of the show, but they are juxtaposed to their colleagues in Senegal whose aesthetic was at times diametrically opposed. This emerges for instance in the juxtaposition of Keita’s crammed picture planes with Oumar Ka’s emptied frames. We encouraged viewers to look closer and appreciate these formal differences and innovations.
Can you please tell us more about the section dedicated to “amateur practices”?
The section on amateur photographers heavily relies on one of my dissertation chapters. Both my chapter and that section considered two series that are well known among specialists of African photography. Images from those two series were published in the famous Revue Noire Anthology in the late 1990s. At the time Revue Noire had undertaken the extraordinary task of collecting, documenting and publishing the work of photographers across the continent. Among the numerous authors that were featured, those two series had received particular attention: not only they were visually particularly striking, but they were also some of the earliest images included in the anthology.
Despite their visibility, little has been published on them. When I was in Senegal, I conducted numerous interviews in Saint Louis with collectors, photographers, tailors, and elders to unpack those images. I realized that differently from most of the images that I had seen, these photos were not taken by professional photographers. During my research I found the boxes that stored the negatives and the positives – showing the name of the studio where they had been developed. These photographers did not have the technical skills or the equipment to develop their films. But they took dozens of photos in a manner that was dramatically different from most images I had seen in Saint Louis. In their shots their sitters move; they are out of focus; at times their head is chopped off. These series show a major shift in the early 1910s in Senegal – when photography was no longer a métier, but an activity of leisure for the upper classes.
Amateur and snapshot photography are genres that photo historians and curators have long resisted. Yet, in the past few decades, even the most prestigious institutions such as the Met have devoted exhibitions to amateur photography. In the growing literature on African photography, the study of amateur practices has not been developed. Or when it is, it generally considers works produced after the 1970s when photography had become a cheap technology that no longer required specialized technical skills. Therefore, this framework allows us to approach these two series in a new way and appreciate the changing significance of this medium.
Most of the photographs in this exhibition are vintage prints and belong to the « Visual Resource Archive, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas ». Where do they come from? What is the research history behind these images?
As mentioned, the VRA has a very interesting history. Originally it inherited the Photo Study Collection from the Museum of Primitive Art as the latter was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in the late 1960s. Yet, particularly since the early 1990s, AAOA curators and archivists have made acquisitions that have expanded the original scope of the collection. The vintage prints from the VRA included in the show have all very different histories. Some were bought in the 1990s through dealers in Europe or New York galleries; some were bought more recently from collectors in the continent.
During my research, I have been able to research some of these in loco. In Senegal, I visited dozens of archives and collections and I conducted more than one hundred interviews in French and Wolof with a wide range of people: from photographers to tailors, from collectors to patrons etc. I wanted to get as many insights as possible on these images: their histories, the technical aspects, the aesthetic, their significance etc. Conducting interviews was probably the hardest part of my research. Finding the good questions and the good examples to discuss took a very long time – and then of course, finding people who were willing to share their time and knowledge with me. While during my fieldwork I have never bought photographs and I have always explained the purpose of my research at the beginning, it still took time to gain the confidence of local owners or collectors just to be able to see their photos. It was certainly a question of trust, but also a question of rights and the history of this field.
The practice of collecting African photography has been a very complex one. The dispute over the rights of Seydou Keïta’s negatives, now in private hands, is one case that attests to the complexity of these transactions (or how terribly wrong these transactions can go). Scholars, collectors and curators are testing alternative options to conserve original negatives and vintage prints, give visibility to photographers and respect the authors’ rights to their images. Initiatives by Candace Keller and the Resolution Photo Fund are good examples of this shared effort to find solutions to questions of conservation, archiving and visibility. These are probably some of the biggest challenges for the development of this field – in terms of research as well as exhibition practices.
What are you working on now? What’s next?
Besides preparing some publications and university courses based on my dissertation, I am working on a second exhibition project with two colleagues of mine, Joshua Cohen and Sandrine Colard. The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture from Africa is scheduled for the Fall 2016 at the Wallach Gallery in New York. As the title suggests it will also be on African photographic portraiture, but it will focus on contemporary practices. Having worked on it for the past 5+ years, the exhibition, which will be accompanied by a catalogue is argument driven. It derives from a study on contemporary trends of portrait-making and presents four artists (Sammy Baloji, Mohamed Camara, Saïdou Dicko, and George Osodi) who are pushing the limits of this genre.