There is an immediacy about great photographs that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Think of Mo Amin’s images of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia that led to the Live Aid concerts and one decade later Kevin Carter’s photo of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture.
Yet these and similar photos of famine, tragedy and disaster in Africa (add the 1998 Embassy bombings and the violent aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan General Election) present cliched views of the continent, according to a charity set up to encourage art in Kenya’s schools.
The Mobile Art School Kenya (MASK), announcing an on-line exhibition by emerging African photographers, called The Visual Tapestry, writes: “African photography that is published in the West tends to propagate a narrow, clichéd vision of the continent as one, unvariegated entity, often through the lens of ethnography, safari shots or images intended to invoke international sympathy.”
And it adds, “Our exhibition is a response to this and a starting point for a new type of representation.”
Which would be fine, except that of the 26 photographs in this exhibition at least 18 would qualify to my eye as either ethnography, safari shots or both. A couple more could pass as social realism.
There are people swimming in turquoise seas, women in khangas, a Samburu wedding, a boy trying to wrestle a long-horned bull, Muslim schoolgirls wearing the hijab, El Molo women collecting water and milking a cow, etc. etc. etc.
It is difficult to avoid such stereotypes because in spite of the flowering of cellular technology — smartphones, M-pesa, and the explosion in social media that brought the Arab Spring — tradition is honoured in Africa, and that wide embrace is one of its delights.
Clichés encapsulate ideas pithily and communicate simply and directly. And just as nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, so not all clichés are old hat.
(Pause to consider the irony of an organisation fighting clichéd views of Africa while calling itself MASK.)
The good news is that at least two of the eight photographers in this show, (run in conjunction with the Facebook-based Afrikan Gallery) really nail the brief by ignoring the lure of photo-journalism and staging scenes with genuine creativity.
Margaret Ngigi, aged 24, based in Nairobi and in the third year of film studies, has already begun to carve a niche by projecting a strong female agenda through Surrealist images.
Ngigi came to notice with photographs dealing sympathetically with women affected by mental illness. With bandaged heads, afraid to face the outside world, they were seen to be hiding from their own lives.
Now she presents two photographs from her Murky Waters series.
Shot in black and white amid the desolate landscape of Lake Magadi, Murky Waters II shows a woman swathed in a niqab behind a warning tape “Police Line: Do not cross”. It represents Ngigi’s view that formal religions oppress women while offering protection.
In Murky Waters V, four women stand bound by their joint presence yet individually isolated, creating a tension that is almost palpable. They are a veiled bride, a school girl, a woman in a glass box (thus superficially free, but restricted in choice and opportunity) and the same woman from the previous photograph in her billowing niqab.
Both photos, taken with a 72-200mm lens on her Canon EOS 5D, project Ngigi’s view of female empowerment as improving but still leaving women fighting for equality; her point being that the oppression of women — religious. social and political — is so ingrained in society that even now forms of it appear simply to be the natural order of things.
The other exciting talent is that of Staice Shitanda, aged 23, also based in Nairobi, who is completing his final year of a degree in architecture.
Three photos from his Black series showcase his imagination, verve and wit and celebrate what he calls, “the bold colours and intricate textures associated with the continent”.
In one, a young woman wears eight head wraps, piled high; another shows his model topless in a voluminous flaring skirt; in the third she almost vanishes inside swirls of cloth in dazzling hues.
He took the head wraps picture with an iPhone 6, while for the other two he used a Nikon D5300 with Nikkor 18-35 and 50mm lenses.
Frankly the rest of the work is mostly run of the mill, predictable and would look at home in a travel brochure… exactly what MASK tells us they seek to change.