In my experience, when talking or learning about aspects of the world, it is discussed in terms of the countries of Europe, the countries of Asia, the countries of the Americas and then the continent of Africa. These views of Africa as a homogenous unit (with perhaps the notable exception of Egypt) do not just occur in conversation—causal discussion between friends and family but it is inherent in our textbooks, classrooms and news sources. I am afraid I am no exception, I often find myself making generalizations about Africa and I am shocked--how is it possible that an area so large and so old has been viewed and internalized as a uniform area.
Contemporary African art has begun to draw attention and confront these generalizations—drawing attention to Africa’s similarity to the rest of the world. There are two cases in which we can see the artist engage in conversation with this accepted lack of understanding.
Contemporary art photographer, David Goldbatt is best know for his photographs depicting South Africa during the apartheid (though is still actively documenting the landscapes of South Africa). Goldbatt is a revolutionary figure in African photography as he initiated a change portraying the rulers and powerful members of society as well as focusing on those being ruled, capturing the struggles and abuses they faced. Goldblatt, a native of South Africa, captures these images and broadcasts them to the rest of the world from within Africa challenging the tradition role of the world looking in and appraising from an external position. Goldblatt describes himself as "a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which [he] was born, with a tendency to doing honor or giving recognition to what is often overlooked or unseen" (From an article by Bill Kouwenhoven).
Differently the show entitled Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography curated by Okwui Enwezo was an important and provocative exhibit for African photography and how we look at Africa in general. The show was on display in the western world and examined the way that we, westerners viewed Africa. The self referential aspects of the exhibit—the atrocities portrayed allow the western viewer to sympathize with the victim for an instant but there is the simultaneous realization for the viewer that they are part of the western world with has occupied this space of brutal action against Africans in history (for instance see the Mikhael Subotzky image, I highly recommend checking out the whole Die Vier Hoeke series). This tension in the images throws the view into an uncomfortable contemplative space—evaluating how the “west” sees Africa and how Africa sees the “west. ” These images force the western viewer to confront the truth of the western violence (perhaps not literally, but metaphorical) to African society, history and mostly perspective.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Exhibition Review: March 1 - May 25, 2008.
Okwui Enwezor, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” in Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, ed. Okwui Enwezor (New York: International Center of Photography and Göttingen: Steidl Publishers, 2006).