You should be deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks they can neatly sum up a whole continent’s artistic output. Because even if you focus on just one artform – like photography, in the case of the Tate’s latest exhibition – you’ve given yourself a pretty impossible task.
But ‘A World in Common’ gives it a valiant, vibrant go anyway. It starts with George Osodi’s gorgeous, lavish portraits of Nigerian kings and queens; regal figures who survived as cultural custodians despite Britain tearing their lands apart, sat on ornate thrones in luxurious robes.
It sets the tone for the show, because at its best this exhibition acts as a portrait of a continent bearing the indelible scars of colonial wounds. Colonialism and its impact is ever-present in the works on display. In shadowy, silently violent photographs, Em’kal Eyongakpa documents his journey through sacred lands that were once a place of anti-colonial Cameroonian resistance; Sammy Baloji juxtaposes colonial-era portraits with images of modern mines to show that exploitation of Africa's land and people never really stopped. Ndidi Dike’s installation of hundreds of binders filled with reams of information shows how data was used to manipulate power. There are so many scars here.
The future might be bright, and it might be gloomy, it’s all still being written
But it would be wrong to assume that all African photography is a confrontation with colonialism; it does a disservice to the countless artists from the continent who have had other things to explore. To that end, Sabelo Mlangeni’s portraits of gay life in South Africa are intimate and joyful, Lebohang Kganye imposes her own ghostly spectre on pictures of her mother, creating tender images of grief, and Hassan Hajjaj’s images of a female Moroccan motorcycle gang are brilliantly colourful and confrontational.
Africa is also dealing with a lot more than just colonialism. It’s growing, and fast. Lagos and Kinshasa are megacities, there’s money to be made, futures to be shaped, but all under the heavy shadow of climate change. Landfills, pollution and water scarcity fill the works of Aida Muluneh and Fabrice Monteiro, while Andrew Esiebo and Kiripi Katembo document the remorseless drive for change in African cities. The future might be bright, and it might be gloomy, it’s all still being written.
But by combining documentary and fine art photography, by whacking in installation and film, by looking at Africa and its diaspora, the show overreaches. As a survey of Africa’s photography, it just doesn’t really work. But as a document of art as a form of resistance, resilience, rebellion, and ongoing survival, it’s brilliant