Oluremi C. Onabanjo on three exhibitions in New York [posted 7/23/2018]

“It was thrilling to go into those darkened galleries packed with people sitting on the floor, enrapt.”

“African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s”
Through October 8, 2018
Metropolitan Museum of Art

“John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire”
through September 2, 2018
New Museum

“Malick Sidibé: Love, Power, Peace”
through August 10, 2018
Jack Shainman

The first show I recommend is an exhibition of 1940s and ’50s studio photographs of African Americans at the Met. The show opens with 19th-century photographs of African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. A quote from Douglass’s 1861 lecture “Pictures and Progress” anchors the exhibition in the idea of self-fashioning. It reads, “The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself—giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation—is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress,” .

The material here is strictly limited: photographs taken in segregated studios and reflecting a twenty-year slice of American history through the experiences of its black middle class; the photos were made using direct-positive photo paper—an early method for producing prints quickly. The curators completed in-depth research into the photographic practices of the time and the different studios operating during the period, while placing the pictures within a cultural and societal frame.

I appreciated the clarity of curatorial context for the exhibition. In its introduction to the show, the museum is up front about how few images of African Americans their photography collection has historically held, and how their recent acquisition of these portraits is part of a larger effort to fill that gap. An adjacent text gives contact information for the photo department, in case a visitor is able to identifying any of the featured portraits’ largely anonymous sitters. The installation is also quite elegant. Many of the photographs are sandwiched between sheets of Plexiglas so you can see the dates and inscriptions on the back, highlighting the materiality and historicity of the objects on view. All in all, the show is charming.

Daisy Studio (active Memphis, Tennessee, 1940s), Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the other end of the spectrum completely, in terms of size and scope, is the New Museum’s survey of John Akomfrah’s moving-image work. The pieces range from The Unfinished Conversation, Akomfrah’s homage to cultural theorist Stuart Hall—whose writings were such an influence on Akomfrah’s oeuvre—to the more recent three-channel installation Vertigo Sea, a roiling ode to migration and to the ocean, which I found really powerful.

The show also features Expeditions One: Signs of Empire, the first work made by the Black Audio Film Collective, an arts initiative Akomfrah co-founded 1982 with six of his peers, dedicated to producing films about the African and Asian diasporic experience. It’s a reminder of what this group was able to do, using crisp, vivid imagery and a nonlinear approach to illustrate the impact of large geopolitical and social fractures manifest in our daily experiences. I feel it’s really important to see Akomfrah’s work in the United States, at this moment in time. It was thrilling to go into those darkened galleries packed with people sitting on the floor, enrapt.

John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012 (Installation view: “John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire,” New Museum, New York, 2018). Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Last is the exhibition of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s 1960s party pictures and portraits, many of them set in hand-painted glass frames, at Jack Shainman. It’s the first solo show of Sidibé’s work at the gallery since his death in 2016, though also important to note the epic 2017–18 retrospective, “Mali Twist,” presented by the Cartier Foundation in Paris.

I never get tired of seeing Sidibé’s exuberant images of post-independence Bamako. The rediscovery of his work and the work of fellow Malian portraitist, Seydou Keïta, has precipitated an interest in the work of other West African photographers such as Sanlé Sory in Burkina Faso and Oumar Ka in Senegal. But for Sidibé and Keïta, more than for other studio photographers perhaps, the portrait was a collaboration with the subject as much as it was a means of expressing an new visual vocabulary for emerging subjectivities within the era. In that sense, they are still really special.

Malick Sidibé, Soiree eu famille, 1972/2008, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 5 3/4 inches image size, 9 1/2 x 7 inches paper size, signed, titled, and dated on front. Courtesy of Jack Shainman, New York.

Oluremi C. Onabanjo is a curator and scholar of photography and the arts of Africa. She is the former director of exhibitions of the Walther Collection Project Space, and a current PhD candidate in Art History at Columbia University. “A Collective Utterance,” a solo exhibition of photographic work by Naima Green curated by Onabanjo, is currently on view at the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park through August 30, 2018.