Given my tendency for Afrilove I was really looking forward to going to see David Adjaye’s photographic journey of Urban Africa.
His aim: To photograph all 53 capital cities on the African continent.
His success: All except Mogadishu in Somalia.
His words: “I hope this project will make people look at people from Africa differently. Just because you come from New York doesn’t make you a more sophisticated city person than someone who is from Kigali.” True – and something more people should realise. Especially as according to a 2007 Monocle article, “Kigali is fast becoming East Africa’s communications hub.”
By depicting everyday life, David’s photos are trying to normalise Africa. Showing that business, family life and making a living happens in Africa too. That it’s not all about giraffes walking lackadaisically across the African savannah against the backdrop of the setting sun.
I like the fact that his photos aren’t the brightly-coloured guide book classics of famous places and close-up faces. They show the gritty, raw reality of people’s lives, the cared-for and crumbling buildings, the huge billboards advertising western products, the rows of single-room family-run shops with hand-painted signs and wonderfully descriptive names, life unfolding on the streets and garish meccas to imported fast food culture.
Yet I had to look really closely to find this – and I’m a willing consumer of this kind of thing – and it left me with little emotional reaction.
If David Adjaye wants to change perceptions of Africa with this exhibition then I don’t think it will have been that successful. For a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the way the pictures were presented. In the main room (the third of three in the exhibition ) the photos – all 6×4 prints – were pasted on the wall in city clusters. They looked like a collection of holiday snaps without any of the famous landmarks or the holidayers posing in front of them. And they had little visual impact.
Secondly, the pictures lacked clear descriptions or a story to accompany them. You had to really want to stand there and stare closely at the pictures to actually see anything. And there was no direction as to where to start looking. You could easily get confused which city you were looking at.
A bit reminiscent of the red room from Twin Peaks – I half expected something surreal to happen.
I think it would have been far more powerful in challenging assumptions to:
> Have a couple of the photos for each city blown up big for people to stop and properly lose themselves in – like the National Portrait Gallery does so well with its portrait award exhibition every year.
> Provide more information about the cities, the personality behind the places – and the experiences David Adjaye had in each place. Compared to David Beckham’s recent visit to Afghanistan and the attention that attracts to tell the story of a totally different place, this exhibition’s messaging is continents (if not poles) apart.
Urban Africa for anyone who hasn’t been to an African capital city isn’t so different to what you’d imagine. There are trees and parks, there are high office buildings and squatter settlements, there are roads and railways, there are markets and malls, there are traffic lights and the occasional roundabout (“keepy lefty” in Swahili!) and there are people, lots of them, going about their lives.
It’s not a jungle out there, but a diversity of places shaped by culture, religion and geography. If it doesn’t come to you, I recommend going and looking a bit more closely.