These works, many of which are being shown for the first time, are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's Visual Resource Archives in theDepartment of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs.
The installation seeks to expand our understanding of West African portrait photography by rendering the broad variety of these practices and aesthetics. It juxtaposes photographs, postcards, real photo postcards, and original negatives taken both inside and outside the studio by amateur and professional photographers active from Senegal to Cameroon and from Mali to Gabon. Among them are renowned artists such as Seydou Keïta, J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, and Samuel Fosso, as well as lesser-known practitioners who worked at the beginning of the century, including George A. G. Lutterodt, the Lisk-Carew Brothers, and Alex A. Acolatse. These photographers explored the possibilities of their medium, developing a rich aesthetic vocabulary through compelling self-portraits, staged images against painted backdrops or open landscapes, and casual snapshots of leisurely times. Regardless of their unique place in the history of photography in West Africa—from the formality of the earlier studio poses to the theatricality of Fosso's fantasies—the sitter's self-assured and unabashed presence fully engages the viewer.
Photography allowed artists and patrons alike to express their articulation of what modernity looked like—one that was constantly reinvented.