The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture from Africa: Joshua I. Cohen, Sandrine Colard, Giulia Paoletti, Deborah Cullen-Morales

Photographic portraiture has long been one of the principal expressions of popular art in Africa, but, from the nineteenth-century to independence, the thematic scope was largely limited to the sitter’s identity and social standing. So widely established is the great African tradition of portrait photography that it has eclipsed the rise of richer and more varied forms of expression that articulate a range of pressing contemporary concerns.
Drawing on an exhibition at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, The Expanded Subject offers a reconsideration of contemporary African photographic portraiture by presenting four photographers—Sammy Baloji, Mohamed Camara, Saïdou Dicko, and George Osodi—whose concerns range well beyond questions of identity and social standing.

Although each of the photographers approaches the genre differently, all four challenge the assumption that portraits must serve as mere reflections of the self. While Baloji employs a photomontage style to dislocate his subjects historically, Camara’s photographs speak to the tenuous, often troubled relationships we have with our pasts, which remain with us even as we deny them and push them to the periphery. Dicko’s subjects, cast in shadow, suggest uncertainty about the very possibility of representation, while Osodi engages his subjects as platforms for social and political commentary.

By bringing together the works of these four important contemporary artists, curators Joshua I. Cohen, Sandrine Colard, and Giulia Paoletti offer new insights into the expressive and conceptual range of African photographic portraiture today, showing how young artists are enlisting the practice of portraiture to explore subjectivity, history, and the way they collide and coalesce in photographic form.

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