Top image: photography by Pippa Hetherington
Created during lockdown by photography historian Dr Julie Bonzon, The Photographic Collective unifies and celebrates lens-based artists from Africa, opening opportunities to collaborate at a time when many appear to be closing.
The not-for-profit initiative aims to bring visibility to emerging artists from the continent, with a current focus on those not represented by a gallery. In addition to providing information and collated knowledge online, the collective can be more broadly understood as a place of congregation, where people from all corners of the photography community can converge, online and in person, to discuss, promote, learn and collaborate.
Those democratic ideals run through the organisation. Each artist is selected by a board of advisors, formed of 11 artists from 9 different countries, who debate and discuss prospective work before casting a final vote. At a time when African photography is receiving long overdue international recognition via a number of high-profile exhibitions (including Zanele Muholi at Tate), the collective will only add to the continent’s burgeoning talent.
Speaking on the need to broaden knowledge of African photographers abroad, Bonzon highlights the importance of connecting with local talent across the continent and how she’d like to extend the project.
Charles McQuaid: Why did you want to start the project and what gap did you want to be represented?
Julie Bonzon: I completed a PhD thesis last spring, writing about the young generation of South African photographers. During the course of my research, I realised that most of the exhibitions I saw in Europe about the theme of ‘Photography from Africa’ tended to showcase the same artists. Discussions with photographers and artists working in South Africa and beyond, as well as research trips to Johannesburg and Cape Town, made me conscious of the fact that galleries played a key role in promoting the work of their artists on the international scene. As a result, artists whose work was not represented by a gallery could sometimes lack visibility. The motivation behind The Photographic Collective was to fill that gap. Also, I wanted the content featured on The Photographic Collective to be accessible to anyone around the world with a good Internet connection.
CM: The Photographic Collective exists as a group of individuals but collaboration is at the core of its projects. How did you initiate this collaboration and how will you continue to grow these relationships?
JB: Collaboration has been an essential part of The Photographic Collective since the day of its implementation. Being based in London, I wanted to liaise with artists and photographers working across Africa to help me find artists whose representation on The Photographic Collective website and Instagram page could be beneficial. The board of advisers is key to the success of The Photographic Collective. It consists today of Jabulani Dhlamini (South Africa), Laura El-Tantawy (Egypt/UK), Lebohang Kganye (South Africa), Ala Kheir (Sudan), Laila Hida (Morocco), Michelle Loukidis (South Africa), Mário Macilau (Mozambique), Uche Okpa-Iroha (Nigeria), Nii Obodai (Ghana and Mozambique), Léonard Pongo (Brussels/DRC) and Rijasolo (Madagascar).
Together, we exchange ideas, discuss the work of artists and decide whose photographs should be presented on the platform. So far, we have nominated the following artists, whose work highlights the incredible diversity of lens-based practices across the continent: Ibrahim Ahmed (Egypt), Nonzuzo Gxekwa (South Africa), Maheder Haileselassie (Ethiopia), Pippa Hetherington (South Africa), Godelive Kabena Kasangati (DRC), Amina Kadous (Egypt), Matt Kay (South Africa), Lorraine Kalassa (South Africa), Amilton Neves (Mozambique) and Etinosa Yvonne (Nigeria).
CM: Do you think the work of artists you represent is received differently outside of Africa and if so, how would you characterise that difference?
JB: I honestly find this question very difficult to answer. I wouldn’t make general assumptions about how the work is received ‘in’ versus ‘outside’ of Africa. Frontiers are porous. Artworks travel, not only in physical spaces but also across digital platforms. Also, when we talk about the reception, which audience do we have in mind? Are we referring to African artists based in Africa? African artists based in the African diaspora? Art collectors based in Europe? Art collectors based in China? And which period of time are we speaking about? Are we referring to 2020 or the 1950s? Maybe a way to answer this question would be to clarify why I have chosen so far to only showcase works by African artists living and working on the continent on The Photographic Collective.
This choice didn’t come from a difference in the way the work is received, but from a difference in the way the work is produced today, a difference in the context in which the work operates. There is a different level of access to mainstream institutions, galleries and collectors’ circles by being an artist based in Paris versus in Addis Ababa. The challenges, limitations and opportunities are not the same. Having said that, I would be keen to include artists working from outside Africa in the future. Still, I chose to work closely and build relationships with artists working on the continent and having access to local art scenes, as a starting point.
“There is a different level of access to mainstream institutions, galleries and collectors’ circles by being an artist based in Paris versus in Addis Ababa”
CM: Going forward, what are you looking to discuss?
JB: I would be very interested in curating new exhibitions with artists from The Photographic Collective, online and offline. We collaborate with cultural partners based on the continent, such as Of Soul and Joy, Afrique In Visu, Cité des Arts (La Réunion), Through the Lens Collective, Fondation Zinsou and Oath Magazine, to help us meet our objectives and help the platform grow and I am keen to continue foster these relationships. Depending on budget, I would love to invite guest writers working in Africa, starting with my network in South Africa then expanding beyond, to write pieces about the work of the artists from The Photographic Collective. It would be fantastic to commission a creative project between an artist and a writer, for example. In addition to presenting the work of artists, the mission of The Photographic Collective is to lead mentorships and collaborative projects to produce inspiring works challenging traditional representations of the continent.
In November 2020, the work of fourteen artists from The Collective will feature in ‘Home Museum’, an online exhibition organised by LagosPhoto Festival.