TORONTO — A century after its arrival in Central and Western Africa, commercial portraiture came into its own. On view now at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the new exhibition You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa considers the evolution of that art form through more than 50 portraits and albums dating from the 1860s to the mid-1980s. Spotlighting the artistry of Cameroonian photographer Michel Kameni, the pioneer Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta and Ivorian photographer Paul Kodjo, among others, You Look Beautiful Like That is curated by Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora and is on view through June 11, 2023.
Highlighting the unique approaches to studio portraiture that evolved in Western and Central Africa in the 100 years following the introduction of the medium, the exhibition title, You Look Beautiful Like That, is a translation of the Malian phrase “i kany¨ tan”— popularized by Bamako-born photographer Seydou Keïta to explain the close collaboration between photographers and African clients in the creation of their likenesses.
“In these images we see artistic experimentation and innovation, as African photographers merged local conventions with western photographic traditions,” says Julie Crooks, Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora. “Taken in a range of studio settings for all of their cultural and technical specificity, what elevates these photographs is the vitality of their subjects.”
Featuring works from the AGO Collection, alongside generous loans from the Solander Collection and others, the exhibition is located inside the Murray Frum Gallery of African Art, on Level 2. Drawing inspiration from the decorative and compositional elements favored by some of the artists profiled, the interior gallery is animated by black and white checkered flooring and a striped motif.
Recently acquired by the AGO, two photographs from Paul Kodjo’s acclaimed Roman Photo series, featuring up and coming Ivorian actors, mark the entrance to the exhibition. Inside, gelatin silver prints by some of the most notable African photographers working in the latter half of the 20th century face off. Enlarged to 21 x 15 inches, the distinctive visual aesthetic of photographer Seydou Keïta finds expression in an untitled portrait of two women, their intensely patterned clothing layered against a highly graphic backdrop.
Examples of early photographic technology dating from the 1880s-1905 are also featured, including Arthur Boyle, an African Prince c. 1880, Souvenir of Abomah, the African Giantess, c. 1905 and a selection of cabinet cards. The rigidity of the subject’s poses and their serious demeanors, are echoed in an album of Nigerian adults and children from the 1950s. The contents of this album have been digitized and can be seen on a touchless iPad mounted near the eastern entrance.
Twenty-two vintage gelatin silver prints by Cameroonian photographer Michel Kameni, taken between 1960 and 1983 reflect his distinct approach to studio portraiture, with men, women and children posed singly or in groups around ferns, standing or seated against plain backdrops. At the far end of the Gallery, a constellation of small and medium sized portraits by Malick Sidibé taken between 1969 and 1986, feature hand-painted glass frames by the artist Checkna Touré.
You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa is free for all Indigenous Peoples, AGO Members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under. Same day tickets can now be booked in person and online. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit ago.ca.
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You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora is supported by Lead Sponsor TD Bank Group through the TD Ready Commitment.
ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.
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