Cairo, Egypt, 2002. (Akinbode Akinbiyi) ​

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.

Akinbode Akinbiyi

Lagos, Nigeria, 2004. (Akinbode Akinbiyi)
Lagos, Nigeria, 2004. (Akinbode Akinbiyi)
Lagos, Nigeria, 2004. (Akinbode Akinbiyi)
Lagos, Nigeria, 2004. (Akinbode Akinbiyi)
Lagos, Nigeria, 2004. (Akinbode Akinbiyi)

Ananias Léki Dago

Johannesburg, from the series Shebeen Blues, 2007 (negative); 2015 (print). Ananias Léki Dago
Orlando East, Soweto, from the series Shebeen Blues, 2007 (negative); 2015 (print). Ananias Léki Dago
Alexandra Township, from the series Shebeen Blues,  2015 (print). Ananias Léki Dago

Seydou Camara

Transcription of an Islamic text in Tombouctou, Mali, 2013. (Seydou Camara)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. The legs of a crash-test dummy.
    Transportation

    A Clue to the Reason for Women’s Pervasive Car-Safety Problem

    Crash-test dummies are typically models of an average man. Women are 73 percent more likely to be injured in a car accident. These things are probably connected.

  2. A NASA rendering of a moon base with lunar rover from 1986.
    Life

    We Were Promised Moon Cities

    It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 put humans on the surface of the moon. Why didn’t we stay and build a more permanent lunar base? Lots of reasons.

  3. a photo of the First Pasadena State Bank building, designed by Texas modernist architects MacKie and Kamrath. It will be demolished on July 21.
    Design

    The Lonely Death of a South Texas Skyscraper

    The First Pasadena State Bank, a 12-story modernist tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, has dominated this small town near Houston since 1962.

  4. People wait in line, holding tote bags in the sunshine, outside a job fair.
    Equity

    How 3 Skill Sets Explain U.S. Economic Geography

    Metro areas in the U.S. with higher cognitive and people skills, versus motor skills, perform better economically and are more resilient during downturns.

  5. Life

    The Future of the City Is Childless

    America’s urban rebirth is missing something key—actual births.

×