Review: Frontiers of the Present

Exploring New Ideas in Photography

Our author Thom Ogonga took a closer look at the exhibition that photographer James Muriuki curated at the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi.

Installation view Frontiers of the Present, 2016, Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi. Photo by the author

By Thom Ogonga
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Photography on the continent has grown rapidly since the turn of the millennium and has seen young African photographers gain global recognition as a result of showing bits of the continent that were never before seen. Photographers have been telling stories that go beyond the stereotypical African narrative of illiteracy, poverty, and disease – that have been commonplace mostly from outsiders looking into the continent. There is a growing general understanding that cameras are no longer tools for just news, wildlife, or advertising but also gadgets for intellectual storytelling.

In Kenya, fine art photography is relatively new and most people making lens-based imagery rarely consider themselves artists. This, coupled with the recent upsurge in devices that take photographs and the preponderance of social media platforms, has led to non-conceptual presentation and a somewhat playful consumption of pictures. Most photographers have found it easy to present their work on these platforms, thereby denying photography consumers the option of interacting with images on an intellectual exhibition platform.

Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery approached photographer James Muriuki to curate an exhibition that was inclusive while looking at work beyond the popular notion of photography. He was interested in showing work engaging the medium while not only employing content and subject, but also pushing boundaries on the technical aspect of image-making.

He explains Frontiers of the Present as a fairly utilitarian title, in that “frontier” can be interpreted as  the  extreme  limit  of understanding or  achievement in the present times. He approached several well-known photographers and eventually settled on ten artists and presented their work at Circle Art Gallery. These included regular exhibitors Ray “Piwi” Ochieng, Guillaume Bonn, Tahir Karmali, and Joel Lukhovi headlining the act alongside popular Sarah Waiswa, Paul Munene, Muchiri Njenga, and Barbara Minishi and the promising Julian Manjahi and Aron Boruya completing the cast. A general view shows a well thought out and presented collection of photographs. It’s an eclectic mix of artists at different levels of their practice with most presenting quite pleasant images. It is a very safe exhibition. Most of the artists’ work is very nice. Almost cute!

The sophistication of cameras and post-production editing currently available has often gotten artists carried away by the technical aspect of photography, allowing that to replace their story – where the artist knows what to say but does not necessarily know how to show it using the tools available to them. This is apparent in some instances in this exhibition.

There seems to be some disconnect, with the curator emphasizing pushing boundaries and artists presenting work that doesn’t entirely seem to support that notion. There are a handful of interesting artists exploring photography in dynamic and experimental ways, and their presence would have enriched this show. It would have been interesting to see works by Osborne Macharia, Jacob Barua, Jim Chuchu, Mimi Cherono,  Longinos Nagila, and even James Muriuki himself as part of this exhibition.

Most artists have exhibited three or four pieces – which is good, as they support each other to emphasize on the narrative, except for Waiswa, Bonn, and Muchiri – whose work I found very interesting. His image is probably the strongest technically. It is well exposed, the depth of field focused well around the subject, and the lighting almost perfect. It is a beautiful shot of an interesting subject.

Minishi has a clever way of manipulating/mutilating images. Cutting them up and making collages while discarding all principles of art and design. Her work is probably what most supports the exhibition theme. It draws you very close to it to communicate with it. “Barbara has given her images a new life with her minimalist black and white paper and photograph collage,” says photographer Asteria Malinzi.

However, the recurrent motif in Myrus is disturbingly reminiscent of images that have been presented before – by regional artists Gadi Ramadhani and Rehema Baya in Nairobi this year. And South African born Marlene Dumas in her Blindfolded series that was part of Africa Remix in 2005.

All participants are very philosophical about storytelling and interrogating social issues, except Bonn who says his recent approach to photography is purely aesthetic, a process he claims to have failed in yet the single image he presents is quite beautiful. It is, however, difficult to agree or disagree with him since a single image can’t be used to qualify this. It would have been interesting to see more from this body of work. And like Muchiri and Waiswa, who also present single images, they should consider that one picture on its own is rarely strong enough to elaborate on the narrative of a full body of work. Unless it was very deliberately meant to stand on its own!

I was utterly perplexed with most of the work’s system of pricing. There was a common trend of the first edition being cheaper and the subsequent ones increasing by a percentage value. As a printmaker, this is a conversation that I’ve had numerously and it’s difficult to convince anyone why five photographs printed on the same size and quality paper on the same day have such variable prices. I’m from the old school where the price of an artwork’s appreciation is time-based – either an enhanced artist reputation or the age of the artwork. Never the sequence of signing!

It is a good show that introduces new artists to a new platform and makes you want to see more from them. It is a beautiful exhibition that seduces you, but lacks the tension that can spark critical conversation. It is a very good attempt at a properly curated show.

For Circle Art Gallery, this is their first exhibition to exclusively show lens-based media. “Photography/video is widely collected across Africa, yet our collectors have not been made aware of this trend and of the interesting photography in Kenya. We try to advise/inform our collectors through our exhibitions,” says Danda Jaroljmek, a founding director at Circle.

There is a good reception around lens-based media locally and Circle would be keen to do a purely video art show. This exhibition was an attempt at presenting fine art photography professionally and has enabled a lot of learning. This learning was needed both by the practitioners – artists and photographers– and agents, curators, dealers, and audiences regarding the medium, the available possibilities and how it can complement other art forms.  If local photographers can build on this, they can attain more visibility, eventually gain prominence, and stand alongside other currently high-flying photographers from the continent.

Circle Art Agency, the gallery’s parent company, set up four years ago by Danda Jaroljmek, Fiona Fox, and Arvind Vohora, has been able to practically shake things up regionally.

For an outfit that started almost as a briefcase agency, Frontiers of the Present is just a wee bit of what they do. The exhibition was shown at 910 James Gichuru Road in Lavington, Nairobi, Kenya until October 2016.

 

Born and raised in Nairobi, Thom Ogonga’s fascination with nightlife in the city has been manifested through painting, drawing and printmaking. He has held a studio at Kuona Trust Arts Centre, the GoDown Arts Centre, and recently moved to a home studio is Loresho, Nairobi. Ogonga is the founder and writer of the blog The Alternative Writer focusing on Kenyan contemporary art.

 

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