Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
An exhibition showcases the works of three photographers who capture the chaos of a rapidly urbanizing continent.
Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing continent on the planet: The UN projects that the share of Africans living in cities will triple between 2020 and 2050. That dizzying pace of change has turned its cities into transitional spaces, where the old and the new and the private and the public are in constant flux. The only permanent fixture is the process of making room.
A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcases three photographers who’ve made the transformation of African cities the central theme in their work. “They compel us to think about African cities in intriguing ways, juxtaposing one period of time against another, documenting daily life in the context of sprawling growth and often with an acute awareness of potential loss or threat,” Peter Barberie, the Brodsky Curator of Photographs at the museum, said in a statement.
Each photographer has ties to Africa and a distinct approach. Akinbode Akinbiyi is Nigerian and British. His images capture the buzz of cities like Cairo and Lagos: buses brimming with passengers (pictured above), streets cluttered with signage and commerce, and the flurry of purposeful bodies in motion. Akinbiyi’s work is packed with clues about the direction in which these cities are headed. But that’s an unintended consequence of the way he experiences each city. As he told the Goethe Institut in 2013:
I am not a flâneur in Baudelaire´s sense, nor do I attempt to observe urban life as an anthropologist – instead, I move with the flow of the movements that naturally occur in these cities. I don´t let myself get carried away by these flows however; but try to be aware of them.
Ivorian photographer Ananias Léki Dago has a quieter, more pointed approach. His images from Johannesburg, South Africa focus on underground bars called shebeens, which were hubs of protest activity during apartheid, when black South Africans weren’t allowed to drink alcohol. These portraits show how the relics of that era retain meaning, as Dago explains in an interview with Leica’s blog in 2014:
The conditions have changed, apartheid is over. When a context changes, elements change too. It’s not like in the past anymore. The political parties are official now, people can take part in politics, and the black populations can vote for candidates now. But the shebeens remain social places where people come to talk, drink, and have a good time.
The third photographer, Bamako-based Seydou Camara, is a lawyer by training. Camara’s images address a very specific concern—the threat of cultural erasure in Tombouctou, a Malian city that has long been a center of Islamic thought and tradition. His photos carefully document conservation and transcriptions of Islamic texts against the backdrop of mosques. They seem to be a departure from the more obviously urban photography above, but highlight a universal anxiety accompanying urban change: that it will jeopardize the original character of the place in question.
Below are some photos by these photographers that are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art till September 25.
Ananias Léki Dago