Collaboration and Studio Photography: Sanlé Sory’s and Ambroise Ngaimoko’s Portraits

In this essay, art historian and writer Rachel Remick considers the photographic work of Sanlé Sory and Ambroise Ngaimoko as part of the flourishing music, cinema, and art scenes in Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where studio photography was a part of the creative expression and self-styling of these nascent republics. Recently, works by each of these artists entered the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. Drawing on existing scholarship on African studio portrait photography, Remick considers these images as collaborative documents—as encounters between photographer and subject.

Sanlé Sory, Untitled, 1970-85. Gelatin silver print. 3 3/16 × 4 1/2″ (8.1 × 11.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © 2020 Sanlé Sory, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Portrait as Encounter

A man reclines on the floor of the portrait studio, propped up on one elbow while his other arm rests on his left leg, which is crossed over his right. Wearing flared pants, a trim light-colored jacket, and polished dress shoes, he appears to be relaxed yet confident as his gaze meets the camera. It is an undeniably stylish photograph, accented by the visual contrast between the geometric floor covering and the sitter’s clothes. In Untitled (1970–85) by Burkinabe photographer Sanlé Sory (born 1943), the laid-back intimacy of the sitter’s pose belies the public nature of the studio space in which he is depicted, perhaps indicative of the trust between Sory and his subject. A similarly stylish portrait of a young man, also Untitled (1974), can be found in MoMA’s collection of photographs by Kinshasa-based photographer Ambroise Ngaimoko (born 1949). In this image, the shirtless subject stands before the camera, dressed in long bell-bottom pants and a patterned straw hat. His left arm, which is bent, crosses his body, making his pose seem more spontaneous and natural. As in Sory’s photograph, this fashionable, intimate depiction of a young man suggests a feeling of trust or collaboration between photographer and subject.

Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z, Untitled, 1974. Gelatin silver print. 23 5/8 × 19 11/16″ (60 × 50 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. CAAC-The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva © 2020 Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z
Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z, Untitled, 1976. Gelatin silver print. 23 5/8 × 19 11/16″ (60 × 50 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. CAAC-The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva © 2020 Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z

Ngaimoko and Sory’s respective studios photographed a wide range of clients. In Untitled (1976), another image from Ngaimoko’s studio, we see a young couple seated on a bench, the woman’s polka-dot dress in contrast with her partner’s dark jumpsuit. Each of the sitters has one arm wrapped around the other’s shoulders, and the woman’s crossed leg casually extends into the man’s personal space in a gesture of intimacy. Both of their gazes meet the camera, a visual confrontation made more striking by the muted cloth backdrop on the wall and floor. A different photograph from Sory’s studio, Untitled (1970–85), shows three women seated in a group and engaged with props. The woman in the center, who wears a dress and matching headscarf, holds a teapot as if she is about to pour tea into the crystal glasses held by her two companions. The other women, who are also dressed in patterned gowns, raise telephone receivers to their ears. Seemingly mid-action, all three women look directly at the camera, as if to acknowledge they are enacting a portrait of an imagined gathering. In their staging of ladies’ tea, they invoke luxury and leisure in their representation of themselves. Together, these four portraits gesture toward the range of Sory’s and Ngaimoko’s studio photography practices, arising in part from the diversity and creativity of the sitters themselves.

Sanlé Sory, Untitled, 1970-85. Gelatin silver print. 3 1/8 × 4 9/16″ (7.9 × 11.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © 2020 Sanlé Sory, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

As they have been historicized, the photographs from Sory’s and Ngaimoko’s respective studios are often framed as representative images of the years immediately following independence in the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Like the work of other studio photographers in Africa, including that of the internationally known studios of Seydou Keïta (1923–2001) and Malick Sidibé (1936–2016) in Bamako, Mali, Sory’s and Ngaimoko’s studio photographs offer a look at what were their local communities. Sory operated his studio out of the regional capital Bobo-Dioulasso in the 1970s, then a cultural center in the Republic of Upper Volta. Besides portraiture, Sory is known for his photographs documenting the city’s nightlife and its thriving music scene, including prominent bands such as Volta Jazz or Dafra Star. Contemporaneously in Kinshasa, Ngaimoko opened Studio 3Z—symbolic of the three Zaïres: the river, the currency, and the country—in the same year the president rechristened the country Zaïre. His studio was popular with local young people seeking portraits.1“Ambroise Ngaimoko,” CAAC Art: The Jean Pigozzi Collection,
The photographs that resulted from these two local studios are, as Allison Moore notes, “not only aesthetic social documents, meant to be hung on walls or kept in albums, or sent to family in rural areas to display the cosmopolitan sense of the urbanite away from home,”2Allison Moore, Embodying Relations: Art Photography in Mali (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 5. they also privilege what historian Carlo Ginzburg calls “microhistories.”3Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It,” chapter 14 in Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, trans. Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). This is to say that though they capture a spirit of autonomy from the nascent postcolonial era, they do not purport to represent a new “national identity” or totalizing image of the sociopolitical context. Instead, their collective output is the aggregation of thousands of individual, discontinuous stories or representations of their historical moment. Each portrait or encounter is a fragmentary expression of the new national context. As a group, these images allow us to see the expertise of photographers like Sory and Ngaimoko, and they testify to local histories of communal expression in the postcolonial era.

Expanding on this idea, I propose that these portraits be understood more specifically as relational encounters.4Moore also emphasizes the social and relational context of photographs. See Embodying Relations. The mode of analysis that I have chosen to adopt refutes a model in which the artist is the sole creative author and generator of meaning. Instead, it prioritizes the creative contributions of both the photographer and the subject, thereby acknowledging the original context of the photograph—the commercial portrait studio. For Sory and Ngaimoko, the sitter was often a customer—someone paying for a portrait that he or she would enjoy. As such, it behooved the photographer in a practical sense to collaborate with his subject. Given the pragmatic and aesthetic reasons for understanding these studio portraits as collaborative, why has this model been slow to gain widespread acceptance? Though no definitive answer is possible, it seems fair to state that to reconfigure the portrait as a coauthored document is to contradict the narrative of individual artistic genius upon which the Western art museum was built. In disrupting the idea of the artist as a lone practitioner of creative genius, a collaborative and relational understanding of studio portraiture takes precedence. The portrait as encounter thus acknowledges both the training and skill of the photographer and the agency of the often unnamed but nonetheless compelling subjects: their imaginaries, self-representation, and willful acts of parody or mimicry.5Certain scholarship has tried to parse the role of both parties in a form of visual connoisseurship, proposing that one could identify a studio photographer by the specific backgrounds or poses. I think this exercise is not especially fruitful and is ultimately geared toward establishing the individual artistic genius of the photographer.

Imagined Identities and Performative Portraiture

Sanlé Sory, L’Americain (American), 1970-85. Gelatin silver print. 8 1/8 × 8 1/8″ (20.6 × 20.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © 2020 Sanlé Sory, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

In the spirit of creative collaboration, photographic studios like Ngaimoko’s and Sory’s provided spaces for play and performance. In many studio portraits, the sitters chose to adopt different roles and scenarios, as in the staging of afternoon tea by the group of women at Sory’s studio. In other setups, the characters and styles reflect the popularity of international cinema, particularly from the United States, in the newly independent countries.6Hélène Bourguignon, “Beauté Congo (1926–2015),” Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, no. 130 (April–June 2016): 186–90, For example, two photographs drawn from Sory’s studio show sitters inhabiting archetypal roles. In American (L’Américain) (1970–85), a young man leans against an iron gate, perhaps a cheeky interpretation of the white picket fence. He sports the accoutrements of 1950s Hollywood: a baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, blue jeans with an oversized belt buckle, and a cigarette, possibly a quintessential Marlboro, rebelliously hangs from his mouth. The subject’s James Dean-esque gaze is defiantly turned away from the camera. Though aware his portrait is being taken, he exudes confidence by refusing to directly confront the photographer. In another example, Intellectual (L’Intellectuel) (1970–85), a different sitter styles himself as man of thought. To perform this character, he has donned a dark trench coat, flared jeans, and transparent aviator glasses, and he holds an open newspaper out in front of him. Here the act of reading is meant as a visual signal of knowledge of current events and perhaps, in turn, the ability to pontificate on such topics. In contrast to the “American,” the “Intellectual” turns his head toward the camera, gazing beyond it, lips curled into a smirk or shy smile.

Sanlé Sory, L’Intellectuel (Intellectual), 1970-85. Gelatin silver print. 8 1/8 × 8 1/8″ (20.6 × 20.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © 2020 Sanlé Sory, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Another popular visual theme is boxing, a sport whose international popularity exploded in the 1970s. In 1974, famous American boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman staged a fight in Kinshasa for some sixty thousand spectators, in an event marketed as “A Rumble in the Jungle.”7“Obituaries: ‘There Will Never Be Another’: George Foreman Remembers Muhammad Ali,” transcription of radio broadcast from All Things Considered, NPR, June 4, 2016, An image from Ngaimoko’s studio, Les catieurs de Kintambo (1975), taken just one year after this famed matchup, shows two men dressed in boxing regalia and posing with their arms flexed. One of the men, in a costume fighting mask, stands with his chest puffed out while his counterpart gazes menacingly at the camera. In Untitled (boxing man) (1970–85), another portrait from Sory’s studio, a man posing in the stance of a fighter ready for action, his hands wrapped for protection , stares at the camera. Unlike Ngaimoko’s boxing images, the man in Sory’s portrait stands in front of a painted backdrop, perhaps representative of Bobo-Dioulasso, showing tall, modern office buildings in a landscape of large trees and clouds. The backdrop amplifies the performative nature of this portrait, lending it a theatrical quality. A handwritten inscription on the print in MoMA’s collection reads, “Prendes garde,” or “Be careful” in French. These performative images not only attest to independence and to collaborative production in the postcolonial era as previously discussed but, in their imaginative staging, exceed such sociohistorical interpretation. They evidence a speculative, contingent form of portraiture in which a person commissions a portrait of their imagined self as an American or an intellectual or a boxer, beyond the limitations of their situated or public identity.

Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z, Les catieurs de Kintambo, 1975. Gelatin silver print. 23 5/8 × 19 11/16″ (60 × 50 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. CAAC-The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva © 2020 Ambroise Ngaimoko, Studio 3Z
Sanlé Sory, Untitled, 1970-85. Gelatin silver print. 8 1/8 × 8 1/16″ (20.6 × 20.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © 2020 Sanlé Sory, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Negatives in Circulation

French music producer Florent Mazzoleni was traveling in Burkina Faso when he first encountered the photographic archives of Sanlé Sory. Per Mazzoleni’s account, Sory was in the middle of disposing of some of his studio negatives from the 1970s and 1980s when Mazzoleni “rescued” them and began circulating them in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.8Fayemi Shakur, “A Witness to Youth Culture in Burkina Faso,” New York Times, January 9,
This messianic story was covered by the press at the time of Sory’s exhibitions in the United States in 2017 and 2018. Yet, its narrative is not unique to Sory. The popularization of African studio photography in Europe and the United States is often traced back to the inclusion of several portraits from unnamed photographers’ collections in Susan Vogel’s 1991 exhibition Africa Explores: 20th-Century African Art.9Candace M. Keller, “Framed and Hidden Histories: West African Photography from Local to Global Contexts,” African Arts 47, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 36–47, The success of Vogel’s endeavor sparked interest in the photographs’ origins and resulted in the proliferation of the archives of photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Sory and Ngaimoko are among many African portrait photographers of the postcolonial era whose archives have been acquired by institutions in the United States and Europe. Beyond well-known practitioners like Keïta or Sidibé, others such as Mamadou Cissé (born 1960) or El Hajj Tijani Sitou (1932–1999) operated successful photography studios in the 1970s and 1980s, and sections of their archives have circulated globally in the twenty-first century.

I call attention to the international dissemination of these photographic negatives from the African continent to illuminate the complicated position of the resulting portraits in the Western museum imaginary. Often printed abroad and untitled because the sitters’ identities are unknown, these shadows of the original portraits have accumulated layers of meaning before they are even seen by a viewing public in the United States or Europe. Put differently: these images are often rightly positioned in scholarship as manifestations of their postcolonial moment in their respective countries—self-fashioned, democratic portraits of the citizens of new republics. Yet, in the contemporary art world, the negatives of these portraits of independence from colonial rule have been removed from their original context and are often reconfigured into paradigms of art and artists perpetuated by Western museums. How are these images transformed by their situation in museum collections markedly different from their original collaborative context and social purpose?

Returning to the refusal and play suggested by the portraits themselves, I end by suggesting that these images be reframed in what Fred Moten refers to as a potential “appositionality” in postcolonial discourse. Rather than reversal (independence replacing dependence), a moment of appositionality refers to “an almost hidden step (to the side and back) or gesture, a glance or glancing blow, that is the condition of possibility of a genuine aesthetic representation and analysis—in painting and prose—of that encounter.”10Fred Moten, “The Sentimental Avant-Garde [. . .],” chapter 1 in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). These images offer, as I would have it, a “genuine aesthetic representation” of precisely an “encounter” between photographer and sitter, a moment of collaborative self-determination. In their complex situation in the Western museum, they are a “hidden step,” “gesture,” or “glance” of a self-fashioned and imaginative African portrait photography.

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