A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography at Tate Modern
This exhibition, curated by Osei Bonsu, brings together 150 works by 36 African photographers from multiple generations. It’s an almost overwhelming task to gather the output of an entire continent and its diaspora from the start of photography, but the show does it admirably. There are a huge range of ideas and techniques on display, but more than anything a huge range of stories.
Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts series tells the tale of science teacher and self-appointed head of Zambia’s space programme Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who decided that Zambia should reach the moon right after gaining independence in 1964. In a letter displayed next to the photos, Nkoloso is quoted lamenting the lovemaking happening between his space men and space women and outlines some of his unorthodox training techniques, like rolling them in barrels down hills and cutting ropes mid-swing so they could experience the sensation of free fall. One might understand why they needed some relief after that. Ultimately, the flights existed only in potential – imaginary rather than extra-terrestrial – but the story feels like the plot of a yet-to-be-made sci-fi film of an alternative world history.
Kiripi Katembo’s work looks other-worldly, as though rocks are floating in the sky. Actually, it is a trick of reflection. Due to the hostility his compatriots showed at being photographed, he turned his attention to puddles of rainwater in Kinshasa and the results look like special effects creations when they are just an illusion of perspective.
British-Gambian artist Khadija Saye’s oeuvre consists of just nine photographs created using a 19th-century process of wet collodion, a labour-intensive and highly temperamental technique. The results are eerie images that look like spiritualist photos of the late 19th century. The fact that she chose to work with a process that is easily affected by elements beyond the artist’s control has an uncomfortable foreshadowing: Saye died at just 24 years old in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, along with her mother.
George Osodi’s vividly coloured portraits of Nigerian royalty in their full regalia capture their grandeur. Aïda Muluneh’s 2018 Water Life series created on the salt flats of Northern Ethiopia are the most instantly arresting shots here, in terms of their use of colour and surreal imagery.
The exhibition space is large and the route through provides plenty of moments of awe. There are films and installations as well as photography. It’s an exciting collection.
Photo: Ema Edosio
A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography is at Tate Modern from 6th July until 14th January 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.