The fundamentals of African art have long thought to focus on traditional techniques of sculpture and painting, yet photography is fast becoming a way for African artists to express themselves and share their stories with the world in public and virtual spaces.
As a medium, photography allows one to craft and capture images that reflect ideas, societies, passions and viewpoints. Perhaps it is this impactful look into a moment of time that has made it a popular choice for young African artists trying to find a platform for their work.
Additionally, the advent of social media and the technological advances that have made smartphone photography able to produce high-quality images can certainly be seen to be a driving factor of this. Essentially, this brings the act of creating and consuming art into the public space. And this is what gives smartphone photography and social media the power to drive social change, to tell a truly African story that we can all be a part of. “I think it’s absolutely essential that art is accessible to all. There are so many stories, lessons and knowledge contained in that it’s a right for everyone to have access to,” says Joburg-based photographer, Siya Mkhasibe.
Photography is one of the main means of expression for contemporary artists.
Virtual exhibits, real impact
In this digital age, the power to construct a world view lies in just about anyone’s hands. Smartphone technology has given us the ability to create images that tell a truly African story, a personal one, a truer reflection of who we are and what we want to say. It’s a way to turn opinions on their head, and to create a new form of public art – which has traditionally leaned towards graffiti and street art.
While we carry the tools to capture the soul of society in the palm of our hands, we also get to share the photographs on social platforms that everyone has access to. Instagram has become a way for artists and influencers to exhibit their work and get the world seeing their point of view. As a virtual exhibition space, it can be a game-changer. “Social media platforms are a great space to showcase your work,” agrees Siya. “It’s space you don't have to pay for and you can receive immediate feedback on your work – that's great for any up-and-coming artist who is seen as having not earned their stripes that they’d need in order to be exhibited in traditional gallery spaces.”
But, a smartphone does not an artist make. No matter the number of pixels or lenses, no matter sensor size or field-of-view a phone’s camera offers, the fundamentals of photography still apply.
“I've been taught that a true or professional photographer is one who has trained their eye to see images in their own defined style that it doesn't matter what instrument they use to make the image. Because of this, I celebrate that smartphone technology has embraced the image-making process by advancing their photography hardware on their small devices,” says Siya. “Photography is defined as ‘painting with light’. Understanding that definition and beginning to create images with a full understanding of it means you've learned more than just pointing your camera, letting it decide for you and clicking the shutter. It’s the fundamentals of composition – knowing which points of interests to place your subject, being able to read light and manipulate it to suit your creative vision, understanding perspective and how to use that to emphasise importance, that make you an artist, because it’s these elements that allow you to produce the image you see in your head. The smartphone is merely a tool.”
I think it’s absolutely essential that art is accessible to all. There are so many stories, lessons and knowledge contained in that it’s a right for everyone to have access to.
Photography’s future in Africa
Beyond giving African artists the power to create images that are truly unique, photography also makes local art more accessible. Taking the world’s perception of our art further than that of distinctive masks or patterned fabric, photography gives us a chance to communicate truly African stories and opinions. And it’s working – the demand for African photography is picking up, and local artists are reaping the rewards.
“Photography is one of the main means of expression for contemporary artists and we have seen that there is a distinct increase in demand for photographic artworks on the secondary market. Images by artists such as Kudzanai Chiurai, Hasan & Husain Essop, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Cyrus Kabiru, Mohau Modisakeng, Zanele Muholi, Athi-Patra Ruga, Mikhael Subotzky and Guy Tillim have been fetching top prices at auction. These are the artists one should watch when their work comes up for auction,” says Wilhelm van Rensburg, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co – a leading South African fine art auction house.
With this in mind, it’s fair to say that photography is cementing itself as a way for us to celebrate art, life and our voice.
Share your snaps
Ready to go from phoneographer to photographer? There are a number of wonderful exhibitions, fairs and competitions that provide a platform for smartphone photography – both around SA and Africa. As Siya says, these are a great way to showcase your work to a local audience.
Photo & Video Experience
An all-inclusive exhibit for photographers of any calibre, with events around South Africa.
Visit photoandvideoexperience.com for more.
Lagos Photo Festival
A month-long international photography arts festival held in October to November in Nigeria.
Go to lagosphotofestival.com for more.
Photo Fair Africa
A photo and video fair that connects brands with people and retailers.
Visit admiredinafrica.com for more.
Brand South Africa
A photography competition to find the best in South African images.
Go to thenextbestthing.co.za for more.
It’s these elements that allow you to produce the image you see in your head. The smartphone is merely a tool.