Photographic works by James Barnor, Benji Reid, Alexis Peskine and Zana Masombuka
October Gallery presents In the Light, an exhibition featuring artists James Barnor, Benji Reid, Alexis Peskine and Zana Masombuka.
Between its invention – nearly 200 years ago – and the post-modern present, artists have embraced the unique medium of photography in an astonishing variety of ways and for very different purposes. From the 1960s, photography within the African diaspora was adapted as a medium to construct and contextualize postcolonial narratives; as a tool to condition socio-political change; and as a way to explore and express the intrinsic complexities of identity itself. In the Light examines the inherent qualities of this ever-evolving medium, focusing on several contemporary artists who, by linking photography to a pan-African aesthetic, are reinventing the medium while expanding its reach into new and surprising areas.
James Barnor’s masterful career spans six decades of continuous development, working as a studio portraitist, photojournalist and general black lifestyle photographer. Since the 1950s Barnor has documented many of the major social and political changes in Accra and London. His images encompass both individual experience and the zeitgeist of the burgeoning African diaspora of the 1960s, 70s and beyond. As art historian Kobena Mercer has observed, “Barnor captures the mood of a nation on the verge of self-determination. […] Crossing the divide between periphery and metropolis, Barnor’s images suggest that “Africa” has never been a static entity, confined to the borders of geography, but has always had a diasporic dimension. A solo exhibition of Barnor’s work is part of this year’s Rencontres d’Arles, France, and his work is also featured in Africa Fashion at the V&A, London.
Choreography and photography unite in the evocative images of Benji Reid. His photographs, mostly composed of self-portraits in eye-catching anti-gravitational poses among a mix of props, seduce the viewer into entering alternative realms. The subjects of the hyper-realities he proposes seem to be liberated by the sheer force of the artistic imagination. Although adorned with fantastical objects and placed in imaginary settings, each perfectly balanced portrait remains anchored in the recognizable world in which we all exist together. Whatever amalgam of visual referents he concocts, Reid’s extraordinary photography underscores his determination to produce “no soulless image.” Reid’s work is featured in the Fayre Share Fayre exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until September 4, 2022 and at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, until November 12, 2022.
Alongside his iconic nail portraits, Alexis Peskine uses photography to explore the ever-changing consequences of the African diaspora. Peskine focuses on the complex complexities of identity, from a personal and community perspective, portraying characters personifying self-possession, perseverance and strength. Examples from two different photographic series, Aljana Moons and Oxaláland, will be presented alongside a digital video. Aljana Moons evokes poetic representations that occupy the liminal spaces between science fiction and documentary modes, as Peskine explores youth, masculinity, fatherhood and the future in Senegal today. The striking images consciously use Afrofuturist themes as a strategy to reimagine the transnational black experience. Peskine recently returned from a residency in Douala, Cameroon, where he created a new body of work.
As an artist, Zana Masombuka creatively directs long processes of transformation to compose formally balanced visual narratives loaded with aesthetic subtlety. In collaboration with different photographers, Masombuka positions herself as the subject of an ever-evolving practice that explores culture and identity. She draws inspiration from her upbringing in the small town of Siyabuswa in rural KwaNdebele, South Africa. General themes of Masombuka’s work investigate the intersections of secular human experience with the modern world and how, particularly in Africa, modernity impacts tradition and culture. The exhibited works unfold the cultural traditions, symbolism and material contrasts of the Ndebele in a radical re-examination of the self as an individual.
Each of these artists struggles with the photographic medium to identify, capture and express the essential and fluid sophistication of an emerging pan-African aesthetic.
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