Mohau Modisakeng in Africa State of Mind by Ekow Eshun

Ekow Eshun on a new era of photography from Africa

The writer and curator is diving into the breadth of photography coming out of the continent in his new book Africa State of Mind. He discusses the “troubled relationship” between photography and Africa, and what sets this new generation apart

“It’s not documentary photography, there’s not reportage photography, there’s not an attempt at creating an objective, authentic version of Africa. To my way of thinking, each depiction of Africa that any given photographer can make is singular; it’s unique to them.” Through process of elimination, Ekow Eshun is pinpointing exactly what defines an ‘Africa state of mind’, the ethos core to his insightful new book, which explores the work of over 50 contemporary photographers on the continent.

The writer, curator, broadcaster and former director of the ICA had been following the photographic work produced across Africa, and found himself “struck by this particular creative moment” that he believes is unfolding – one that posits Africa as a mindset rather than a sum of its geographical parts.

“I was interested in African photographers that assert their position as artists, as individual people who are free to explore the world through their own imaginative and artistic reach and ambition. So what you get gathered in the book are all these different, individual takes on Africa or ‘Africanness’,” Eshun explains.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou
Top: Ditaola VII, 2014 by Mohau Modisakeng. Image courtesy of the artist. Above: Untitled (Egungun Project), 2012 by Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Bell Gallery, London

While geography and topography are relegated in Eshun’s book, it’s hard to escape their influence. “One of the things that is interesting is, you start to see why those tendencies take place,” Eshun says. “So, for instance, there’s a lot of photography that comes out of southern Africa and that’s for two reasons – one, because somewhere like Angola or South Africa has got a very healthy documentary photography tradition. But one of the other reasons is, for many reasons, South Africa is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa – it’s been able to nurture visual culture and photographic culture in ways that some other parts of the continent haven’t. So there are practical reasons as well as aesthetic reasons why you see different sets of photography in different places, and the reason why they look the way they do.”