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Larry Achiampong

Post originally written for AADAT.

Cloud, performed by British-Ghanaian visual artist Larry Achiampong investigates the concept of racial identity while exploring the consequences of ‘othering’ in modern British society. The performance, at London’s Tate Modern begins with the Cloudface character – a mask with a black head and bright red lips – entering the gallery escorted by an anonymous female character towards a space containing paintings and sculptures by Picasso. On arrival, the Cloudface character sits silently in a chair placed against the bare white walls of the gallery for an hour, and again is escorted out of the gallery space by the same anonymous female character. This performance is a continuation of Achiampong’s photo series, ‘Lemme Skull U’ and ‘Glyth’ where he places the Cloudface character on top of photographs of family members in a variety of situations via digital manipulation, erasing them of their identities. Essentially making them faceless with no back-story.

 

The thing that first strikes the viewer of the photographs and the performance itself is Cloudface’s glaring similarity to the controversial Gollywog figure. In an interview with OkayAfrica, Achiampong states that Cloudface was an extension of seeing the ‘Golly’ character on jars of Robertsons’ Marmalade, a breakfast staple in the UK and US during the 1980s. Its everyday normalness, despite its offensiveness could be seen as an extension to the tense race relations that hung over Britain during the 80s. In a decade that brought riots to many major cities, the New Cross Fire and Swamp 80 with an introduction to racial profiling by police, the overwhelming sense of minorities being ‘othered’ and losing their own sense of self is a narrative that one cannot avoid. As one looks through the ‘Lemme Skull U’ series in particular, we are introduced to that same powerful motif running throughout. Reflecting on his practice, Achiampong states, “work with images that include my family [are] a starting point for telling a story that will open up and become less about the singular moment and more about plural debates.”

 

The performance of Cloud in a classic gallery setting does indeed lead us to evaluate the current climate of race relations and tensions in the UK today. The performance, simplistic in nature and action, is more than enough to provoke an emotional response. With political parties such as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) wanting the UK to remove itself from the European Union due to Britain being ‘full’ to figures such as Tommy Robinson (former leader of the English Defence League) gaining more platforms to speak on, the UK risks becoming more inward-looking, more closed, and sadly, more intolerant of diversity. In recent years, perhaps in part due to the economic downturn, immigrants and ethnic minorities have almost taken on a caricature-like figure to many, an ‘other’ that is to be avoided and in some cases, demonised. Adverts sponsored by the Home Office are pasted onto vans imploring asylum seekers to  ‘go home’. Far right leaning newspaper articles talk of immigrants abusing the benefits system, when official statistics show that this practice is indeed a rarity, with immigrants paying more in taxes than they take out in benefits. In short, racism – although seen as subtle or even as a non-existent issue by some – still runs through the very fabric of British society today. Achiampong’s work, using a variety of different mediums and techniques, skilfully reinforces the alienation and intolerance many do experience. In a fragile climate where particular groups risk losing their individualism, it also suggests moving against the tide of popular opinion, with the ‘others’ taking ownership of their own personal identity and history.

            

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Clifford Owens

Post originally written for AADAT:

Artist Clifford Owens performed his piece, Photographs With An Audience, over two nights at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery earlier in October. The set-up is fairly simple: a large, characterless room equipped with two studio strobe lights and a medium format film camera. Owens acts as a ringleader or ‘provocateur’ of sorts, posing various questions and statements to the audience who, if they can relate, stand in front of the camera to have their portraits taken. The instruction given: do not blink. Owens, who has performed Photographs with An Audience in major cities across the US, reacts to the demographic and general ‘feeling’ of the audiences who have come to see him perform. This lends itself to a sense of unpredictability, with both the artist and audience bouncing off each other’s emotional and physical cues, however subtle.

 

The questions Owens asked ranged from the harmless (‘Who here lives in south Manchester? That’s the part that has money, right?’’) to the extremely personal (“Have you ever lost anyone to AIDs?”) over the duration of the two hour performance. In a vast space, audience members were encouraged to be open with anecdotes and personal memories. Some state that performance art is a performance of the human condition itself, in that we are forced to confront issues that may otherwise be seen as ‘uncomfortable’ or even ‘taboo’ in other social settings.

 

At one point during the performance, Owens scanned the room before proclaiming, “Wow. There are three black people in the room this evening. I want the black people in the room to stand up so we can take a photo.” In fact, four people stood up, facing the white audience who remained seated. It may be noted that the demographic of visitors to cultural spaces such as museums and art galleries tends to be fairly narrow in definition – the majority are white and middle class. The ‘other-ness’ Owens highlights could be seen as challenging the status quo, and forcing the audience members to think about race as a concept of power and privilege in today’s society.

 

The true strength of Photographs With An Audience lies in Owens’ ability to choreograph participants without inhibition or self-consciousness, as well as dissecting issues that many would find too uncomfortable to approach head on. As one of the leading artists in the world of contemporary black performance art, his work looks at the history of other African-American artists and utilises what has been studied, photographed and performed before to create his own vision.

 

An exhibition of photographs created during the Cornerhouse performances of Photographs With An Audience will be shown in Manchester, UK in May 2014.

 

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Santu Mofokeng

Post originally written for AADAT.

“Home is an appropriated space. It does not exist objectively in reality. The notion of ‘home’ is a fiction we create out of a need to belong. Home is a place where most people have never been to and never will arrive at.”

 

Born in Soweto in 1956, Santu Mofokeng has become one of South Africa’s most prolific and celebrated photographers. Mofokeng casts an inquisitive eye on the country under Apartheid and the years afterward, highlighting a range of topics ranging from life in townships to what he calls ‘existential madness — the absurdities of living’. For me, the true beauty of Mofokeng’s images lies in the strength of his storytelling ability: his photographs are often simple and subtle, yet seem to ask the viewer to look beyond. He wants you to look again. Look closer.

 

One of Mofokeng’s most striking photo-essays, ‘Chasing Shadows’, tackles the subject of spirituality and existence with images of affiliates of the Zionist Apostolic Faith and their place of worship at the Motouleng caves. Throughout the essay, he appears to analyse the importance of spirituality in all forms while questioning ideas of ownership and belonging.

 

Mofokeng worked with the African Studies Institute for nearly 10 years as a photographic researcher; a job that allowed him to observe his home nation with an almost-scientific approach. The series ‘Township Billboards’ looks at consumerism in townships with images of state-sponsored advertisements that are at complete odds with the environment they are placed in. He states, “I read somewhere that ads create a sense of participating in the utopia of beauty: life as it should be.” We ourselves are forced to look at our own environment – are we being bombarded with the subliminal yet unnecessary everyday? What do we truly need?

 

From the outset, one gets the feeling his images were in part created in reaction to the reductionist images coming out of Apartheid South Africa by foreign photojournalists – the narrative of ‘telling one’s own story’ has never seemed so apparent. Keen to avoid making victims of his subjects, Mofokeng manages to do the complete opposite in light of often difficult circumstances. From tackling the emotionally loaded subject of children who have become caregivers due to HIV/AIDs (‘Child-Headed Households’) to broaching the issue of black farm labourers on white-owned farms (‘Rumours: The Bloemhof Portfolio’), Mofokeng tackles the difficult balance between representation and objectivity with sensitivity.

 

Described as one of the most important photographers of his generation, Santu Mofokeng’s extensive body of work grants us a personal, considered look at South Africa’s past, and as an audience, allows us to question just what the future may hold. “[The future] is a foil, a blank canvas on which people can project their own imaginings.”

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Unseen.

Just over two weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to travel to Amsterdam to attend the second edition of Unseen Photo Fair. With the fair still very much in its infancy, I was attracted by its ethos: to provide a platform for emerging artists to exhibit their work and to discuss the globalisation of contemporary photography. Alongside the festival-like atmosphere, it provided me with a chance to explore the current climate of the photography world alongside some of the field’s most knowledgeable artists, curators and writers.

 

The first highlight of the festival was the fascinating VPRO Trendspotting documentary about the 2009 edition of Bamako Encounters, the 8th African Photography Biennale. The documentary discussed the differences in the views and work-processes of African and Western photographers working in Africa, as well as interviews and spotlights on well-known artists such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. One particularly thought-provoking interview was with Zanele Muholi, the South African visual activist documenting LGBT culture in the black community. Muholi spoke at length of her struggle to exhibit her work in the majority of African nations due to current political and cultural views about homosexuality. At just under an hour long, the VPRO Trendspotting showcased the many highlights of Bamako Encounters, as well as leaving viewers with questions regarding the future of photography on the continent.

 

A short walk away from that was probably the most popular exhibit of the entire fair: JR’s Inside Out Project. JR, a French photographer and artist has spent the past decade travelling the globe to documenting identity and representation via street art and public participation. This chapter of his global participatory project aims to tackle worldwide issues by allowing participants to share their face, story and hopes for the future. A mobile photo-booth stood in a large warehouse with queues of people waiting in line, alongside passers-by who were quietly taking in the vast scale of the exhibition. Large-format photo-booth portraits were printed almost immediately and efficiently pasted down by staff to any space available: the walls of the building and floor being the most popular choices. In JR’s words, “INSIDE OUT gives everyone the opportunity to sound their voice and give it a face.” To date, more than 120,000 people in over 100 countries have had their portrait taken for the project, with those numbers set to increase in the coming months.

 

Alongside the frequent film screenings and exhibitions from participating galleries, Unseen Photo Fair also hosted talks and lectures over 3 days. The lecture I was most looking forward to was “How to Connect In A Globalising World” – a look at “emerging” photography markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and how curators, scholars and photography experts can develop more of an understanding of global arts. During the hour-long discussion, the selected panel discussed the dangers of stereotyping artists and their work based on their place of birth, and how important the internet is to the younger generation of photographers who appear to be more connected and “world-savvy” than their older contemporaries. The lecture left me with more questions than solid, concrete conclusions. Why should there be any sort of obligation for African artists to adapt their work for Western curators? Can work be left to merely exist or will political views and/or ingrained stereotypes and preconceptions always play a part of the analysis of any given piece? I was a little disappointed by the lack of African presence at Unseen with only one gallery, Stevenson Gallery of South Africa, having a stand at the photo fair. Caline Chagoury, executive director of Lagos Photo Festival and Echo Art, Lagos, was scheduled to take part in the Globalising the World lecture but unfortunately was not present on the day. Events such as Dak’Art, Lagos Photo Festival and Addis Foto Fest celebrate the sheer wealth of talent and diversity in African photography and it would have been great for some of the emerging ‘unseen’ artists to be given more of a platform at Unseen.

 

For a fair to be truly international, I believe it has to encompass talent from all over the globe and attempt to avoid the Western bias that can dominate such events. The 2011 edition of Paris Photo celebrated African photography with many stands and exhibitions devoted solely to its history and the current wave of practicing artists working today. However, I do not believe that is a long-term solution to the issue – African artists should be given equal importance to artists from other continents every year rather than one-off, almost ‘guest’ appearances. As Unseen Photo Fair develops over the next few years, its roster of galleries and artists also has the potential to grow, hopefully providing us with a more of a truly globalised look at photography.

 

To find out more about Unseen Photo Fair, go to http://www.unseenphotofair.com and to check out the portraits of JR’s Inside Out Project, visit http://www.insideoutproject.net/en

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