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ICYMI: You Look Beautiful Like That

A pop-up photo studio is coming to the AGO this Family Day Weekend, inspired by the exhibition You Look Beautiful Like That.

image - Paul Kodjo - untitled

Paul Kodjo, Untitled, 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Overall: 50 x 40 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. © Estate of Paul Kodjo, courtesy Les Rencontres du Sud. 2019/2325.

Open now on Level 2, You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa pays homage to the rich and widespread history of photographic practices in Africa from the 1860s to the 1980s with photographs by Seydou Keïta, Paul Kodjo, Malick Sidibé and more. 

Inspired by the exhibition and in collaboration with the Black Daddies Club (BDC), Toronto lens-based artist Roya DelSol will photograph families, friends and loved ones in a pop-up studio in Robert Harding Hall this Sunday, February 19 and Monday, February 20, 2023In case you missed it, we covered You Look Beautiful Like That when it opened at the AGO in December 2022. Read below.

‘I kany¨ tan’—a Malian phrase which, in English, translates to ‘you look beautiful like that’. Seydou Keïta—prolific Bamako-born photographer, credited with popularizing it—once sagely remarked, “[As] a photographer … you try to obtain the best pose, the most advantageous profile because photography is an art.”

You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa—a new exhibition opening at the AGO this Saturday, December 24, and running through June 2023—traces the development of African studio photography from the 1860s to the mid-1980s. Curated by Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, the exhibition showcases photographs drawn from the AGO Collection by the pioneer Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, the Ivorian photographer Paul Kodjo and others. 

You Look Beautiful Like That invites viewers to explore the invaluable contributions local African photographers made to the unfolding history of the medium across the African continent. By the 1950s and onwards, African studio photographers like Michel Kameni, Sidibé, Keïta and Kodjo had begun experimenting with lighting and composition techniques, resulting in flattering portraits of their subjects. It was a time of transition, a post-independence era in Western and Central African nations and these images carried with them an air of optimism. This exhibition centres on the close collaboration between photographers and African clients in the creation of their likenesses. 

A woman wearing a patterned dress stands beside a small Christmas tree. She looks directly at the viewer.

Jacques Toussele, Studio Portrait of a Woman in a Patterned Dress standing next to a Tree, 1970-80. Gelatin silver print. 8.8cm x 13.9cm. Private Collection.

Viewers will first encounter Kodjo’s cinematic compositions with a pair of photographs from his “Roman-Photo'' series, in which the sitters, complemented by dramatic lighting, striking backgrounds and emotional encounters, highlight the photographer’s background in film. 

Paul Kodjo, Untitled. Gelatin silver print

Paul Kodjo, Untitled, 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Overall: 50 x 40 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. Estate of Paul Kodjo. Courtesy Les Rencontres du Sud. 2019/2326.

Throughout the main exhibition space, works by Sidibé, Keïta, Cameroonian Jacques Tousselé and others present masterful portraits of groups and individuals in a range of studio settings. Using repetitive props, poses and inventive backdrops, each photographer’s unique style and practice underscores the endless possibilities of commercial studio portraiture. These images are placed in conversation with early examples of studio photography dating to the 19th century, showcasing the development and ongoing cultural significance of such photographic practices in West and Central Africa. 


Wedding Portrait from Album of Adults and Children Posing in Their Local Costumes, Nigeria, Africa

Unknown photographer. Wedding Portrait from Album of Adults and Children Posing in Their Local Costumes, Nigeria, Africa, 1950s, 18 July 1951. Gelatin silver print, album: 24.3cm x 15.4cm x 2.2cm. Private Collection

Unlike Keïta’s signature layered graphic patterns of clothing against vivid backdrops, assorted props and a panoply of dynamic gestures, Kameni kept his studio approach simple: a plain backdrop and black-and-white tiled floor. Sidibé’s studio set-up was somewhere in between and ever-evolving. Drawing inspiration from these decorative and compositional elements, the interior gallery is animated by black-and-white checkered flooring and a striped motif, magnifying the studio effect for viewers. 

A toddler boy looks towards the viewer. He stands beside a small Christmas tree.

Michel Kameni, Studio Portrait of a Child with a Small Tree, 1960-1980. Gelatin silver print. 8.5cm x 12.5cm. Private Collection.

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