Ideas of Black identity dominate the annual Deutsche Börse Prize show this year. Three of the four finalists use photography and photographic imagery to interrogate Blackness: its meaning and historical function, its marginalisation and commodification. The fourth sticks a lot of scruffy to-do lists on the wall and a typed letter explaining why the subject of her major photographic portrait series doesn’t want it to be on display anymore.
Let’s take that artist – Bieke Depoorter – first. I was really looking forward to seeing the Belgian photographer’s series ‘Agata’, in which she befriended an erotic dancer and documented their evolving relationship over three years. Sadly, Agata and Depoorter have apparently fallen out over payments (hence the letter), so we’re not getting to see it. Her video/installation piece about tracking down a random man called Michael she met on the streets of Portland OR is okay, but not really very vital-feeling.
Also a bit disappointing are Frida Orupabo’s big collage-sculptures, which feature archival (and anonymous) Black faces comped on to various bodies, including those of white women from antique naughty postcards and a bat. The results – jointed like Javanese puppets – obviously suggest manipulation of identity, though not much else.
It's okay, but not really very vital-feeling
Much better are two series from legendary Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso. One is a set of Malick Sidibé-esque self-portraits from the 1970s, in which he adopts a variety of hipster outfits – massive bug shades, billowing flares – to look at the way Black sitters would inhabit personas when having their picture taken. A more recent series from 2008 sees Fosso dressing up as Black icons – Malcolm X, Dr King and, brilliantly, Angela Davis – to explore how their photographic faces have their own story, independent of their historical identity.
Finally, Arthur Jafa uses yet more archival images – of Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, HR from Black hardcore band Bad Brains – to recontextualise ideas of Black music and creativity, and its white commodification. I felt guilty just being in the same room as them.
There are plenty of brilliant individual works in this year’s line-up, but it is a bit one-note overall. Depoorter’s partial no-show doesn’t help. And for all its focus on ideas about Black subjects, creators, revisitings and revisions, it’s all quite colourless.