It began back in the 1950s, with African friends and families immaculately dressed and coiffed, presenting themselves as they wished to be seen: their dignity and formality in these studio portraits a studied contrast to the "exotic" images of tribal rites, malnutrition and the horrors of war taken home by Western anthropologists, journalists and travellers.
More than any other continent, Africa's development has been dictated and perverted by foreign greed, and likewise its image has been defined by the foreign lens. That is the cage of stereotype which the best African photographers have fought to escape for the past 60 years: often rejecting the Western obsession with traditional ceremony and costume, rejecting similarly the associations with violence, poverty and mayhem, sometimes rejecting even the notion of Africa itself - insisting instead on the vast array of identities that have germinated in the continent's soil.
The world's first virtual auction of contemporary African fine-art photography, on 28 May, offers a unique perspective on a growing body of work that has come a long way since Malick Sidibé's classic formal studio portraits, which were inspired by the anonymous work of a thousand jobbing photographers across the continent.
Works by Sidibé, as well as those of many of the other photographers in the auction, are now bought and sold in fine-art showrooms in London, New York and Paris and hang in the top modern-art museums. And although these artists are keenly aware of the photographic work being produced in other parts of the world, there is no mistaking their roots.
Despite the doubts some of them have about identifying themselves with their continent, there is, as the auction's curator Ed Cross points out, "a degree of coherence to the work, because of the tributaries flowing into contemporary African culture: the successful photo biennales in Mali, Lagos and Addis Ababa, Nigeria's booming 'Nollywood' film industry, the whole rise of the digital world, and the ubiquity of studio portraiture as exemplified by Sidibé".
The studio portrait is reborn in contemporary work by Johannesburg-born Justin Dingwall . In a collaboration with Thando Hopa, an albino woman who is his model, he explores the delicate and ambiguous identity of a person who, as Hopa herself puts it, is "a black girl living in the skin of a white person". The melancholy serenity of the portraits, which have something of the haunting quality of Vermeer, is also a nod to the dignified, poker-faced portraits of the past.
A widespread allergy to shooting traditional costume and ritual has made it hard for African photographers to confront such themes, but it is an allergy some are now striving to overcome: notably the Nigerian George Osodi, whose depiction of a huge collection of rings and bangles worn by an Ashanti chief is rescued from National Geographic familiarity by focusing intently on the laden hands and arms, and omitting the head altogether. In other works in the series, he depicts miners enduring atrocious conditions to dig up and refine the precious metal that goes into these ornaments.
The disconnect between urban Africa and the rich West is explored in the work of Ade Adekola, a conceptual artist and architect educated at London's Architectural Association, who, in his "Icons of a Metropolis" series, overlays a Lagos broom-seller on to Manhattan and a shabby ice-cream seller on to a strangely traffic-free Regent's Street.
The drama and beauty of the African environment is another subject which African photographers have trouble tackling because of the extent to which it has been appropriated by Westerners, and because modern development has wrought such devastation on it. One distinguished exception is Adolphus Opara, whose beautiful, enigmatic monochrome landscapes are the result of close research. "Husk Mountains of Abakaliki" (see page 24) shows a Mount Fuji-like peak which is, in fact, a vast heap of rice husks discarded over years in the production of rice. The insect-like figures on the peak are poor villagers who come every day to this man-made mountain to sieve through the husks for grains that are fit for consumption - in the process, as Opara notes, ingesting the dust of the husks which in the long run causes lung disease.
The African Contemporary Photography Auction, The Auction Room, Wednesday 28 May at 7pm, theauctionroom.com/auctions/25
Preview at Ozwald Boateng, 30 Savile Row, London, 14 to 28 May 2014.
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