Photographic archives of West and Central Africa

31.01 — 03.02.2019

The Vernacular.

For the past twenty years or so, vernacular photography has met with growing interest. According to Larousse, the vernacular term, from the Latin "vernaculus", means indigenous, and its root "verna" refers to "a slave born in the master's house". Can be considered as vernacular in photography what is not artistic or not from the world of communication (fashion, press, advertising), therefore for example family photography or identity photography.

Artists were the first to promote vernacular photographs, from the historical avant-garde to Christian Boltanski or Gerhard Richter.

Given its descriptive strength, vernacular photography is similar to cataloguing, categorization, even differentiation, and thus bears the seeds of its future, i. e. the archive.

The Archive

Rarely has the archive, as a discursive object in culture and contemporary art, been so topical.

"At the end of a century hunted down by the fury of disappearance, the archive appears as a last place of salvation, a place of conservation after so much excess destruction," notes the theorist Wolfgang Ernst.

By preserving the negatives of the West and Central African studios and creating large formats of framed exhibitions, making them accessible to the public, the collector Jean Pigozzi and the curator André Magnin, at the time in charge of the CAAC collection, did a real archiving work. Their efforts to inventory all these images, often for the first time, to group them together in a single storage place in order to preserve them and finally to present them on the net, making them available to all, make these photographs documents (anthropological, historical, sociological) as much as works of art.

The Photography Studio in West and Central Africa


If some archives have survived since the end of the 19th century, it is especially since the 1940s that the production of indigenous images in West and Central Africa has developed. However, it remained under the censorship of colonial powers and portraiture became the only activity of photographers such as those made by Seydou Keïta, Mountaga Dembelé or Cornelieu A Augustt. It was only with the independence of the early 1960s, but also with the arrival of more manageable cameras, that African photographers left their studios and became involved in the life of the city. The reign of portrait studios ended twenty years later with the development of cheap colour laboratories and, later, with the advent of digital photography.

The photographers chosen in this exhibition focus exclusively on photographs made in the studio - or imitating the studio device. The photographed are generally represented in front of each other, posing and looking towards the camera, isolated in front of a background that is most often monochrome.

The photos taken between the 1940s and 1980s, whether in Bamako, Kinshasa or Lagos, were generally taken to mark important moments in the lives of the photographers: birth, death, marriage, jubilee, end of study, return to their hometown. Even identity photography was an essential step in the biography of individuals, because any portrait linked to an administrative document also showed a striking temporality: competition for a position, recruitment into the army, enrolment in a school, establishment of a passport symbolizing freedom to leave the country and return unhindered.

Often people are photographed with accessories. A man can be, for example, sitting on a motorcycle or a woman leaning against a radio. Symbols of Western consumption, these objects are made available by the photographer to the photographed. They can report: I can't afford to buy this bike or radio right now, but in the future I will own one. Their use here points to the future and contradicts an important part of the theory developed by Roland Barthes and others. His famous "it has been "assigned to photography is replaced by "it will be (maybe)".

"Construction of the imaginary of the self" is how the artist and theorist Olu Oguibé calls the process of projecting the self towards another identity, towards another social status.

Joerg Bader (Director of the Geneva Centre of Photography)

Martine Frésia (Independent Exhibition Manager)

Exhibition view

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