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7 African female photographers you need to know

BY Susan Gray

17th Jul 2023 Art & Theatre

7 African female photographers you need to know

Africa has often been defined by Western images. Here are seven African women who are showing their continent through their own lens

Since the invention of photography in the 19th century, Africa has been defined by Western images of its cultures and traditions. But now African artists are using photography and video to explore past legacies and to look to a more hopeful future.

"African artists are using photography to look to a more hopeful future"

To coincide with "A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography" opening at Tate Modern, here are seven outstanding African women photographers.

Lebohang Kganye

Lebohang Kganye’s "Her Story" (2013) series recreates scenes of her late mother in old family photographs. The artist lost her mother three years before the photographs were taken. Inserting herself into interior and exterior homely family scenes and wearing the same garments her mother had worn decades earlier, Kganye lovingly performs her mother’s gestures as she poses for the camera.

Lebohang Kganye, Kwana Germiston bosiu I, 2013 Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 335 × 232 mm Courtesy of Lebohang Kganye

Lebohang Kganye, Kwana Germiston bosiu I, 2013. Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 335 × 232 mm. Courtesy of Lebohang Kganye.

Like ghostly apparitions, Kganye’s photomontages of mother and daughter tell new stories of shared memory. 

Atong Atem

Born in Adis Ababa, Atong Atem moved to Australia as a child. "Studio Series" (2015) are inspired by vintage African studio photography, and the interior shot portraits mix printed fabrics and beading with kitsch Australian ornaments, to indicate where the photographs were made.

Atong Atem, Adut and Bigoa, The Studio Series, 2015 Ilford smooth pearl print; 840 × 590 mm © Atong Atem. Courtesy of MARS Gallery and Atong Atem

Atong Atem, Adut and Bigoa, The Studio Series, 2015. Ilford smooth pearl print; 840 × 590 mm © Atong Atem. Courtesy of MARS Gallery and Atong Atem.

Using photography to explore the stories of African diaspora, the artist says of her work: "The first photographs ever taken of Africans were colonial ethnographic depictions that presented the subjects in a really skewed and problematic way—I wanted to see what happens when we turn the lens on ourselves and subvert that ethnographic gaze."

Cristina de Middel

In "Afronauts" (2012) Cristina Middel playfully places an astronaut figure in brightly patterned suit and opaque globe helmet next to an elephant, and in longshot on a hilly scrub landscape. The project rebuilds the surreal historical event in 1964, when Zambian teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso single-handedly tried to start a space programme.

Cristina de Middel, Butungakuna, 2012 Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 970 x 970 mm © Cristina de Middel

Cristina de Middel, Butungakuna, 2012. Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 970 x 970 mm © Cristina de Middel.

De Middel depicts an imagined version of events, while playing with stereotypical ideas of Africa. Without a proper record of the attempted space programme, the artist has blended a Western mythical understanding of both outer space and Africa. De Middel combines history and fantasy to "break the rules of veracity", to present an atmosphere of hope and optimism, and to provoke the audience into questioning the stories we consume.

Zina Saro-Wiwa

After working as a journalist, Zina Saro-Wiwa began her artistic practice as a way of processing her family heritage, notably the death of her father, Nobel Prize nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was murdered by the Nigerian government for his campaigning against Shell Oil’s pollution. Living between the US, UK and Nigeria, the artist’s "The Invisible Man" series (2015) investigates masquerade culture and mask-making.

"Zina Saro-Wiwa began her artistic practice as a way of processing her family heritage"

She emphasises the specially commissioned masks she wears in the images are not a memorial to her dead relatives, but a living entity. "It is activated by dance and in my case by video installation performance. And it is carved from special trees in Ogoniland. I feel that through this mask I have re-inscribed myself into the landscape and asked the invisible to dance for me. Death is not silence and it is not an end. Spirit remains active through living culture."

Aïda Muluneh

Aïda Muleneh says the purpose of her "Water Life" series is to "advocate through art". Shot in the salt flats of Dallol, Afar, Ethiopia the series addresses the impact living without access to clean water has on women and girls. In rural households women bear responsibility for fetching water, and the artist wanted to highlight how much this restricts their educational, work and social opportunities.

Aïda Muluneh, Star Shine Moon Glow, Water Life, 2018 Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 800 x 800mm Commissioned by WaterAid

Aïda Muluneh, Star Shine Moon Glow, "Water Life", 2018 Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 800 x 800mm. Commissioned by WaterAid.

But access to water is also key in communities’ sustainability, and the nation’s future. Using vividly coloured figures in an otherworldly landscape in works such as Star Shine Moon Glow, Muleneh addresses the urgency of water supply, without resorting to cliches of Western aid media images.

Ruth Ossai

Ruth Ossai was raised in eastern Nigeria, and now lives in Yorkshire. She is interested in how photography can transport memories across time and geography, and her practice takes inspiration from the dynamism of mid-century West African studio photographers such as Malick Sidibé (1936–2016) and Seydou Keïta (1921-2001).

Ruth Ossai, Student nurses Alfrah, Adabesi, Odah, Uzoma, Abor and Aniagolum. Onitsha, Anambra state, Nigeria, 2018 Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 1016 × 673 mm © Ruth Ginika Ossai

Ruth Ossai, Student nurses Alfrah, Adabesi, Odah, Uzoma, Abor and Aniagolum. Onitsha, Anambra state, Nigeria, 2018. Photograph, inkjet print on paper; 1016 × 673 mm. © Ruth Ginika Ossai.

In Ossai’s carefully staged group and solo portraits, community and family members pose against printed backdrops, Astroturf and parquet style floor, inspired by the visual style of Nigerian gospel music videos and popular films.

Malala Andrialavidrazana

Combining photography with collage, drawing and text, Malala Andrialavidrazana’s practice explores the roots of cross-cultural histories and exchanges. In "Figures" (2015–21), the artist’s collages resemble old maps and stamps. The series uses alternative forms of storytelling to examine the construction of collective identity in relation to the politics of nation building. Piecing together various maps produced during the age of empire places their power under a new lens.

"Malala Andrialavidrazana’s practice explores the roots of cross-cultural histories and exchanges"

Andrialavidrazana says, "We should always remember that cartography was among the most powerful political and ideological tools during the nineteenth century. In the same way, banknotes often conveyed stereotypes promoted by consecutive regimes and leaders."

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