“In Their Own Form”

Museum of Contemporary Photography


“In Their Own Form” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography highlights work by Afrofuturist artists who use photography to address issues specific to people of African descent. Afrofuturism combines the mythologies of African cultures with tropes found in science fiction and fantasy genres to create a unique perspective from which viewers may contemplate their relationship to history. The realities envisioned by these artists create a sense of displacement that also seduces the viewer with heightened aesthetic value.

The exhibition is an interesting examination of photography as a medium. In her introductory essay, curator Sheridan Tucker Anderson writes about the importance of photography for portraying blackness. Recognizing its potential for humanizing black people in the public eye, Frederick Douglass embraced photography and was the most photographed man of his era. His photographically reproduced likeness worked to counteract the stereotypes that had previously served to represent black people. “In Their Own Form” follows in this tradition. The artists employ different ways of creating and displaying photography, thus reflecting a unique approach to the medium.

Photography can become symbolic by simultaneously representing and manipulating time while existing as a two-dimensional object. Wild as the Wind by Ayana V. Jackson uses photography to create a visual rift in time that is reminiscent of the use of time travel in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. In Kindred, a black woman from 1976 is transported to the pre-Civil War era every time her distant ancestor, the white son of a slave owner, is in mortal danger. The novel reflects the tragic way that hate and prejudice are interwoven with the history of America. For Jackson, fashion is a time machine. The modern quality of the lighting and imagery are in contrast with the 19th century garb of the women in her photographs. Time is frozen with the arrested movement of the subject, and the context of place is removed by the studio setting.

Mary Sibande uses the studio as her setting in A Terrible Beauty. The photograph depicts a black woman serenely standing amidst a mass of purple tentacles. They emerge from beneath a white apron and float above her head. This image is in reference to the Purple Rain protest in South Africa, during which police sprayed protesters with a purple dye to mark them for future arrest. This particular purple is key to the image. Aside from the color, it is otherwise visually opposite to photographs of the Purple Rain marches. In contrast to the violent speed of the purple spray of water cannons in those depictions, the purple creeps outward from the subject in Sibande’s photograph. There is a sense of serenity and power in the woman’s face and pose. The photograph claims power from this color that was previously used to inflict violence. It is something straight out of a comic book, the tragic origin story of a supernatural being.

Similarly to Sibande’s work, Fabrice Monteiro’s creatures emerge from their polluted environments. Monteiro teams up with fashion designer Doulsy to build elaborate costumes out of detritus from along the coast of Dakar, Senegal. These monstrous beings are ancient genies, awakened and angered by the destruction of their environment.

Teju Cole has three framed pieces in the main room and one large print in a dedicated room towards the rear on the first floor. These works employ a variety of different strategies for displaying photographs as well as combine image and text in an interesting way. The photographs are subtle and almost mundane, but they are given context by the words accompanying them. Cole writes about the way photography can both reveal that which was previously unseen, as with the eyes of a subject emerging from the shadows of a scanned image, while being at the same time remaining an unreliable medium: “What is seen is greater that what the camera can capture of it, what is known is finer than writing can touch.” Although these pieces are rich with theories about photography, they seem extremely rooted in the present, making them feel a bit out of place amidst the supernatural beings in the surrounding works.

On the third floor, the work is not quit as strong as the rest of the exhibition. The size of these photographs pushes the detail to the extreme until they break apart and the subject has to compete with the medium. For example, Alun Be’s photographs are much more effective online than in person because the photographs are rough and pixelated. There are also several prints that are stills from Alexis Peskine’s Aljana Moons. These too lack quality and do little justice to the video they are taken from, which is quite phenomenal.

The most prominent piece in the exhibition is a three-channel video by Mohau Modisakeng called Passage. In this video, each channel shows a view of a boat in water. Given time, we can tell that two boats are sinking while one is rising, an effect created by reversing the video. The music is enchanting. Subtle differences and shifts in the actions of the characters become very important. By the end of the video, nothing unexpected has happened. The characters are simultaneously submerged by or have emerged from the water. This predictable end raises an interesting question: if time runs backward or forward, what has really changed?

The artists in this exhibition are brought together to examine the conflicted and often violent relationship black people have with history. It is a survey of the photographic medium with each artist utilizing it in unique and exciting ways. Their engagement with Afrofuturist aesthetics allows viewers to enter sublime new realities in which the power has shifted to amplify the voices of people within the African diaspora.


Rebecca Memoli


Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual.”


“In Their Own Form” is at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, April 12–July 8, 2018

Ayana V Jackson, Wild as the wind, 2015, Archival pigment print on German Etching, 43 × 46 in; 109.2 × 116.8 cm. Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Ayana V Jackson, Wild as the wind, 2015, Archival pigment print on German Etching, 43 × 46 in; 109.2 × 116.8 cm. Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Mohau Modasikeng, Still from Passages, Three Channel HD Video, 18:49 min, 2017. Courtesy of What if the World Gallery



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