'African Spirits' at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York: Joseph Akel, July 2019

From the time of its introduction to the continent, portrait photography has remained a central part of African photographic history. By the early 1900s, practitioners born in England and France had established permanent studios in most West African capitals. A generation of African apprentices-cum-entrepreneurs quickly took to the new technology, opening their own spaces to meet the growing demand for photographs in daily life. By the 1950s, the widespread proliferation of photography studios and rapid cultural adoption of the medium by photographers and patrons alike had set the stage for the outpouring of artistic innovation that followed in the post-independence era. 



In African Spirits, images from the 1950s-1980s will be on view by celebrated masters from West Africa’s “golden era” of studio photography, including Samuel Fosso (Cameroonian, b. 1962), Seydou Keïta (Malian, 1921 – 2001), J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (Nigerian, 1930–2014), Malick Sidibé (Malian, 1935 – 2016) and Sanlé Sory (Burkinabe, b.1943). From Cameroon to Senegal and from Mali to Gabon, as many West African countries entered eras of independence and self-governance, photographers were forming new aesthetic vocabularies of pose and persona, ranging from images deliberately staged against painted backdrops and self-portraits with props, to snapshots of partygoers performing the latest dances to new forms of music. Captured in the selection of vintage and modern prints made from the artists’ original negatives, a natural hopefulness is witnessed of a generation of youth for whom music newly exported from America such as Soul, Rock and early R&B, new fashions such as platforms and bell-bottoms, and new technologies such as battery-powered record players were wielded in front of the camera as both signs and catalysts of change. As Sanlé Sory states of his Volta Photo studio: “People were excited about the possibilities independence offered and played with new identities in the studio.”


Words by Yossi Milo Gallery

August 6, 2019