Portraits of the personal shift

How will we one day remember Robert Mugabe? As a graceful political leader whose perfect poise epitomised all the optimism of the new Zimbabwean state? Or, rather, as a bedevilled old man whose gaunt features became a metaphor for his ruined country?

Looking recently at a photograph by David Goldblatt of Mugabe, taken six years into his presidency, I was struck by the dignified presence of the seated leader.

In this image Mugabe looks purposeful and certain. It was a certainty that would later become the regret of Zimbabwe.

Taken in 1986, Goldblatt’s portrait is one of a number of surprising images on view at the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town.

In an exhibition titled Staged Realities, curators Kathy Grundlingh and Michael Stevenson elegantly juxtapose competing ways of seeing and representing African identity in photography.

An exhibition with Pan-African ambitions, it presents photographs taken in the studio tradition in predominantly sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th century, mostly by European photographers.

Alongside these ethnographic depictions of African people, the exhibition also showcases a remarkable archive of images by some of contemporary Africa’s most idiosyncratic photographers.

Foremost among these is Samuel Fosso. Born in Cameroon, Fosso was displaced by the Biafran war and ended up living in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. There he started his own photographic studio, Studio Photo Nationale.

Fosso first began his experiments with self-portraiture as a way of using up unexposed film, the results of his playful interactions sent as gifts to his mother in Nigeria.

Over time his demure, almost shy engagements with the lens became more exploratory and intimate.

This show includes three early examples of Fosso’s work, from 1977, images possessed with an enthralling self-confidence and camp nostalgia.

Created in isolation from the global art scene, Fosso’s images are quite remarkable when you consider that they were made at a time roughly congruent with the career of American photographer Cindy Sherman, who is widely fêted for her conceptual self-portraits.

Equally compelling, and conceptually challenging, is the work of Malik Sidibe. The Malian photographer is represented by a trilogy of intriguing images.

According to Muslim tradition it is inappropriate for people to possess images of the self.

Sidibe cleverly sidestepped this religious proscription by photographing his Muslim subjects with their backs turned to the camera.

This strategy, engineered to respond to a very real practical constraint, transforms what would otherwise be a rather common studio image into something entirely different.

In a gallery filled with 19th-century images of African subjects, many of whom are documented as if they were strange animals, the strident gesture of turning the back on the camera is also loaded with its own resonant qualities.

Philip Kwame Apagya and Dave Southwood are presented as two photographers concerned with the studio as framing device, the former incidentally, the latter quite consciously.

The Ghanaian photographer Apagya shoots classic African studio portraits, his subjects framed by an assortment of studio backdrops.

The fabulousness of these painted settings allows his subjects to act out small, fake dramas: catching a plane, admiring a home filled with an abundance of consumer electronics.

Intrigued by these staged realities, Southwood simply removes the subject to show these framing devices more clearly.

His two, people-less images of One Shot and DPM Studios, both in Cape Town, reveal something of the yearning of township dwellers to be inserted into Cape Town’s glamorous lifestyle settings.

A show of undeniable breadth, there are some obvious lacunae. Two notable absences include representative images by Zwelethu Mthe-thwa and Koto Bolofo, both South African-born.

But these are small absences given the impressive and outward-looking gaze of the show.

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