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Good collections pivot on critical conversations

Artists seem to be currently less interested in producing photographic works, but for collectors, they present an opportunity to access a wealth of the visual history of the African continent

Painting might be the medium du jour for African artists, particularly given the portraiture genre is experiencing a revival, however, photography has been one of the most important in not only the development of African expression but in an ongoing dialogue around identity, race and the western or white gaze.

This link is perhaps so firm in our consciousness due to the late, great Nigerian curator, Okwui Enwezor, who curated a string of high-profile exhibitions in New York since the mid-1990s, which were dedicated to the work of African photographers. Think In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present (1996) which showed at the Guggenheim Museum; The Short Century: Independence and liberation movements in Africa, 1945-1994, which was shown at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, the Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and P.S.1, New York (2001-2002); and Snap Judgements (2006) at the International Centre for Photography.

You could draw a connection between the current fixation artists have with portraiture and its power to celebrate identity and the history of photography in Africa, which is thought to have flourished in countries post-independence. This coincided with the need to remake identities and reclaim suppressed histories and cultures. Think of the portraits produced by the Malian, Seydou Keïta, James Barnor in Ghana from the 1950s, Salla Casset or Meissa Gaya in Senegal in the 1940s, Malick Sidibe, the first photographer to win the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, or J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere who documented women’s hairstyles in Nigeria in the 1970s.

When Enwezor first arrived in the United States in 1992, he says he “noticed the absence of any sense of recognition of the kind of social space from which I came. Coming to the United States from Nigeria to begin a new one also was met with a total lack of any kind of historical presence of the immediate post-colonial period.”

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