It’s been a long time since there was a single large collective exhibition of modern African photography, and the Tate Modern has pulled together a very substantial collection and filled an equally substantial space with them.

It can at first feel a bit problematic to lump an entire continent of work into one exhibition as if ignoring the vast differences between the countries, but to counterpoint that, much Western art is lumped together into one bracket as well without people (usually) complaining that Italians and Germans aren’t the same.

So, the Tate Modern has filled several vast rooms with a very broad range of portraits and photographs that show the vast potential of this enormous continent. That’s part of the exhibition’s strength in the variety of what they’ve collected, but also in a way it weakness as other than “from Africa”, there’s very little to tie the collection together.

Opening with a series of almost stereotypical African portraits, they’re of Kings and Queens who ruled over pre-colonial countries, and when their small kingdoms were smashed together to form colonial countries they retained their roles as local leaders.

It would be as if William the Conquerer had retained the monarchs of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex, while also setting himself up as King of all the English.

There’s vast difference in the display though, from a throne room that looks like it’s almost come from a Hollywood fantasy to a Queen who has a much more conventional appearance.

The exhibition moves on to a more spiritual world, showing how modern photographers seek to reinterpret the various countries ancient religions, either seeking to simply preserve what was lost, or reclaim it in rebellion against Western imposed Christianity.

One striking photograph shows four girls while a man reads from the Koran, with the intention by the photographer to show the contrasts between isolation caused by setting the characters so far apart from each other, while still coming together at a single table. It did slightly remind me of Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s much mocked use of really long tables for meeting world leaders in recent years. A table now so notorious it even has its own Wikipedia page.

Photography reveals, but when the topics are concealed it captures an otherworldly ambience, and many country’s use of masks is explored in the exhibition, from tribal to modern.

The exhibition is often so far slightly gloomy, no one is smiling, but you do eventually get to smiles, with portraits of marginalised LGBT+ people struggling to live in countries that still murder people for doing nothing more than falling in love.

Some of the most arresting photos to my mind though were the ones showing the mix of poverty decay and development in modern urban landscapes.

As an exhibition it’s a vast space, reflecting maybe the vastness of the continent, and the art on display is as varied as the many countries that make up that vast continent. It’s of necessity a snapshot of Africa’s modern photographic artistry, but it vividly fills the space with colour.

The exhibition, A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography is at the Tate Modern until 14th January 2024.

Adults: £17 | Concessions: £16 | Children (12-18): £5 | Children (<12): Free | Members Free

Tickets can be bought from here.


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