The influence of Revue Noire

Revue Noire was a bi-lingual (French and English) quarterly print magazine. It was published by Editions Revue Noire in Paris from 1991 to 2001; Simon Njami and N’Gone Fall were both former editors. Its tagline was African Contemporary Art and it was widely distributed throughout Africa. The magazine editions were often curated around topical issues with informative texts, often-unseen photographs (at least to me) and lots of illustrations of artworks; content was sourced from across the continent. It was a response to the timeworn ‘dark continent’ imagination assigned to the continent.

Mama Casset. Woman in the studio. 1950s–60s. © Photo Mama Casset. Revue Noire, Paris

Editions Revue Noire also published a series of black and white pocket sized photo books, each with a specific editorial focus. The series included books on Mama Casset, and his exquisitely regal portraits made during the 1950’s; Portraits made by the Ivorian Cornélius Yao Augustt Azaglo from 1950 to 1975; and the Bamako Photographers with selections of portraits made by amongst others, Abderramane Sakaly, Seydou Keita and Malick Sibidé. These pocket sized photo books and those Revue Noire magazine were my introduction to contemporary art from Africa. It also sparked my interest in Studio Photography.

Seydou Keita. Untitled (Bamako). 1956–57.

My aim with this short essay on Studio Photography is to highlight how ordinary people, given a choice, chose to have themselves represented. Photography was a powerful tool in the colonial conquest, and the coerced ethnographic portrait is evidence of how white Europeans opted to represent Africa’s ‘exotic natives’. Photography, during the age of empire, argues Peffer “served to both symbolise the power differential in the colonies and to bring the space of the other into visible order”.[1] Many African studio photographers developed their skills in the studios set up and owned by Europeans. Mama Casset’s surviving archive however, reveals an alternative articulation, of how an African practitioner, using the same tools, challenged those narratives of an unsophisticated African populace. In his studio the Senegalese woman of the 1950’s radiated elegance and proudly owned their lived identity. They were encouraged to engage the camera provocatively, and posed with confidence because they were not Casset’s subjects, but rather his co-creators.

The Black Photo Album / Look At Me 1890 –1950

The Black Photo Album / Look At Me –1890 – 1950 is a collection of digitally reworked photographs assembled by the South African photographer, Santu Mofokeng. Its timeline straddles three periods of South African history, the late colonial era, the union years and early apartheid. Mofokeng (1996) notes that these photographs of urban black working and middle-class families were either ‘commissioned, requested or tacitly sanctioned’. As left behind artifacts by deceased family members, ‘they sometimes hang on obscure parlour walls in the townships’ (Mofokeng, 1996). In some cases, relatives consider these photographs as ‘coveted as treasures, displacing totems in discursive narratives about identity, lineage and personality’ (Mofokeng, 1996). To others they are valueless, stored away or destroyed ‘because of interruptions in continuity or disaffection with the encapsulated meanings and history of the image (Mofokeng, 1996). Mofokeng however, urges his audience to believe the image for they tell us something about how those in the photographs imagined themselves.

Santu Mofokeng. Black Photo Album. 1997.

The collection was originally developed for an exhibition at the Third International Biennial of Photography in Tenerife, Canary Islands. Thereafter, it was exhibited at various museums in South Africa. I saw the exhibition at the Natale Labia Museum in Muizenberg, Cape Town in February 1997. Later that same year, and then in the form of a slide installation, it went on view at the Second Johannesburg Biennale. At the time, South Africa was deeply invested in creating and shaping a national imaginary for a young new nation. Mofokeng’s collection revealed an important layer within the identity discourse. Mofokeng’s collection gained global recognition with exhibitions at important museums in the global North. A book with the same title was also published.

Santu Mokofeng, The Black Photo Album

Studio Photographs from India

Street Dreams is the title of an exhibition catalog published on the occasion of the exhibition, Street Dreams: Contemporary Indian Studio Photographs from the Satish Sharma Collection. The exhibition was presented at the Standpoint Gallery in London in 1997 and formed part of the 1997 Shoreditch Biennale. Delhi curator Satish Sharma, owner of the collection, and the curator of the exhibition, writes in the catalog that the collection “is an attempt to recover and define an alternative cultural heritage – a post-colonial history and an Indian non-western cultural identity” (Sharma, 1997).

St
Cover of the book, Street Dreams

Many of the photographs in the collection were found at flea markets, or ‘rescued’ as noted by Sharma. The portraits, taken in the studios of Rotiographers[2] offer a glimpse of momentary projections of fantasy and power performed by ordinary people. Sharma suggests that these photographs “form the populace face of photography in India, and constitute an Indian response to the realistic discourse of photography”. Sadly Sharma also notes that Indian interest in preserving this material remains lacklustre despite the cultural historiography of vernacular photography.

Bobson Studio in South Africa

In 1997 the Bobson Studio in Durban still featured a painted backdrop flanked by draped curtains and a square meter patch of printed floor-linoleum. However, the demand for studio portraits had long ceased. The studio was then primarily trading in camera accessories and batteries. Orders for its once-popular service of hand coloring old black and white photographs were also dwindling.

Bobson Studio was founded by Sukdeo Bobson Mohanlall in 1960 in Durban. Sukdeo immediately became known as Mr Bobson, Bobby Bobson or Bob Bobson. It opened in a building on the corner of Cross and Alice Streets in the city centre and never moved. It remained at that same address even after Sudkeo’s tragic death in 2003. I never met Mohanlall in person. We only ever spoke on the telephone, and very regularly from 1998 until a few days before his death. During these conversations he told me about his experiences of working at a photographic processing laboratory in Durban as a young Indian man. Of the early days of setting up his own studio and of its overwhelming popularity. And, of his determination to keep his studio in business despite the changes in the photography sector. He was an analogue man having to live in a digital world.

Mohanlall opened his studio in a partnership with a friend. And, between the two of them they took charge of every step; they took the photographs, developed the film and printed the images. They kept their doors open seven days a week. Weekends were the busiest when, according to Mohanlall, lines of young and mostly twenty to thirty year old amaZulu patrons were seen snaking all the way down Cross, and into Alice Street. Initially his customers brought their own clothes, beads and accessories. However, as items were left behind it was gathered into boxes and were used by other patrons. Most of the beadwork featured in the studio portraits is from the Ndwandwe clan who live in an area just outside Durban known as the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

The Bobson Studio was a very small shop. But, because dressing up formed an important part of the studio portrait process the boxes of forgotten stuff had to be kept. They were stored behind the drapes, and packed around the legs of the light stands. Space became so cramped that in some of the portraits the pushed- aside shoes and socks of those being photographed are visible.

Bobson Studio Portrait. c1970.

Unlike most of the studios elsewhere in Africa, the Bobson Studio in Durban adapted to the market demands of the late 1960’s and introduced studio portraits shot on color film. Mohanlall used his Yashica Mat camera, which created twelve square photographs off a single roll of film. Film development and printing was outsourced to a commercial color laboratory in Durban; and the prints were ready for collection within two days. Mohanlall issued his patrons with prints and sets of postcards bearing their portrait; these were posted to relatives and loved ones living elsewhere in the country. These postcards were much more than just a card with an image, they were symbols of prosperity, of success, and were proudly treasured.

Lance Slabbert was a young surf photographer when he befriended Mohanlall in the mid 1990’s. Mohanlall told Slabbert that because of his problem with space, he had to destroy all his black and white negatives and handprints from the 1960’s. He had already destroyed all the complimentary documentation, such as names, of his color negative archive.

In 1997 Mohanlall announced to Slabbert that it was time to destroy what was left of his archive – his color negatives from the late 1960/1970’s. They were stored away in drawers and boxes and he needed the space. Slabbert convinced him otherwise, and instead the two agreed to collaborate on a two-person exhibition. Slabbert created a makeshift studio on Warwick Avenue, a busy market thoroughfare not far from Mohanlall’s shop and invited passers-by to have their portraits taken. Mohanlall selected and supervised the printing of a collection of his color negatives. The exhibition Street Style & The Bobson Studio Portraits opened at Durban’s NSA Gallery in September 1998. It was Mohanlall’s first exhibition.

Mohanlall was very pleased with the positive response to the Bobson Studio Portraits. I think it surprised him. However, I do believe that he recognised the value of the collection, and its historical importance. But his mission at that time was his hand colored black and white portraits. He always mentioned that he only employed the best colorists in Durban. But these artists were aging, and with no demand and no skills transfer it was likely that this highly specialised craft was not going to survive. It really upset him.

Bobson Studio portrait. c1970.

Three months after the Mohanlall and Slabbert exhibition in Durban, a team of curators from Revue Noire, Pascal Martin Saint Léon, Jean Loup Pivin, Simon Njami, Frédérique Chapuis and Pierre-Laurent Sanner presented a much awaited project, eye Africa – African Photography 1840 – 1998 at multiple galleries and venues across Cape Town. They included Street Style & The Bobson Studio Portraits in their programme and it was exhibited at AREA Gallery. At the time I was the curator.

In January 2003 Mohanlall was fatally shot behind the counter he had stood for more than forty years. Two gun-armed youths escaped with ZAR 40 in cash.

Conclusion

The Bobson Studio Portraits represent a very specific response to photography. There was no coercing, these were paid-for images. Bobson’s young patrons are seen engaging stereotypical symbols such as power by posing with notes of money, or confidently projecting their urbanity by showing off wrist watches and boxes of cigarettes. The collection is region-specific. Yet, it also reflects a contemporary world, in which young city dwellers consciously mixed traditional beads and ceremonial outfits and items with the latest fashions. The photographer’s studio takes on the role of a theatrical stage, with draped curtains and pedestals with plastic flowers where young women felt safe to show off their beauty and pride, and young men confidently displayed their muscularity and masculinity.  

These photographs deserve to be studied, and preserved in public collections locally, and not only internationally as has been the case.

[1] From Remarks on South African Photography and the Extraphotographic, John Peffer, 2012. http://africultures.com/remarks-on-south-african-photography-and-the-extraphotographic-11101/

[2] Rotiography – photography done to earn your bread (roti) with no claim to authorship as creators. The image is the property of the client who posed and paid for it.

Selected Sources

Bobson Portraits. 2001. Exhibition catalog published by Studio d’Arte Raffaelli, Trento, Italy. Text by Heidi Erdmann

Eye Africa, African Photography 1840 – 1998. 1998. Exhibition catalog published by Revue Noire, Paris, France.

Photographes de Bamako. 1996, Editions Revue Noire, Collection Soleil, Revue Noire, Paris, France.

Street Dreams, Contemporary Indian Studio Photographs from the Satish Sharma Collection. 1997. Exhibition catalogue. Published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, UK.

Krouse, M. 2013. Thing of Beauty: The Black Photo Album, Mail & Guardian, 21 November 2013. https://mg.co.za/article/2013-11-21-confounding-expectations/

Martin, M. 2019. Between Dreams and Reality A History of the South African National Gallery, 1871 – 2017, 2019. Page 173.

Mofokeng, S. (1996). The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1900s. Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 4, 54-57. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/422473.

Exhibitions, Publications & Collections

2015   The Other Camera,Commune. 1, Cape Town, South Africa

The Other Camera,Origins Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa

2014   The Other Camera, The Ethnographic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

The Other Camera, Exposures, Halmstad, Sweden       

The Other Camera, Exposures, Saltsjöbaden, Sweden

Contemporary Art/South Africa, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USA          

The Other Camera, University of Michigan, Institute for Humanities Gallery, Anne Arbor, Michigan, USA

Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall, Axis Gallery, New York, USA

2011   Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa since 1950, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, USA

Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Tamar Garb. Steidl, 2011.

2010   Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa since 1950, Virginia Museum of Arts, Richmond, USA

2004   In the Studio: Portrait Photographs from Africa, Newark Museum, New Jersey, USA.

2002   Passport to South Africa, Contemporary South African Art, Trevi Cultural Center, Bolzano, Italy

2001   Bobson Portraits, Studio d’Arte Raffaelli, Trento, Italy

Zulu, Axis Gallery, New York

2000   Bob Bobson & Jackson Nkumanda, Centro Culturale Paggeria, Sassuolo, Italy

1999   Towards-Transit: new visual languages in South Africa. Serge Ziegler Galerie, Zürich, presented by Pro Helvetia, Arts Council of Switzerland

Bobson Portraits, South African Embassy, Accra, Ghana

1998   eye Africa: African photographs 1840-1998, AREA Gallery, Cape Town.

L’Afrique Pare Elle-Même, Maison Européenne de la Photograhie, Paris, France.

Street Style & The Bobson Studio Portraits, NSA Gallery, Durban, South Africa

 Publications

Bob Bobson & Jackson Nkumanda, 2000. Published in Italy. (Italian only).

Bobson Portraits, 2001, Published in English and Italian. Essay by Heidi Erdmann

Collections

Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, USA

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Newark Museum, Newark, USA

South African National Gallery, Cape Town, SA

Compiled by Heidi Erdmann February 2020