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Exhibitions: "Photo Cameroon: Studio Portraiture, 1970s-1990s," at UCLA

By David Schonauer   Thursday July 22, 2021


Was it West African photography’s golden age?

The Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles says so in announcing the exhibition "Photo Cameroon: Studio Portraiture, 1970s-1990s," which runs through December 5.

The exhibition, notes the museum, is the first in the U.S. to look extensively at the work of Cameroonian photographers Jacques Toussele, Joseph Chila and Samuel Finlak. 

“The trio of artists, along with their well-known counterparts from Mali and Senegal, helped define the golden age of studio portraiture in West Africa. Combining technical proficiency with an imaginative and at times playful eye, they fueled their clients’ desire to be represented and seen through this versatile medium,” notes the museum.

The images by the photographers illuminate “the aspirations, allegiances and beliefs of Cameroonians since 1960, when their nation gained its independence,” adds the museum, noting that the clients of the photographer collaborated on choices of clothing and props and poses to shape the images they wished to project. The three photographers used a range of locations, from formal studios with electric lighting to ad hoc outdoor settings that relied on natural light.

Jacques Toussele

“Toussele, Chila and Finlak were adept at helping sitters convey different aspects of their identities — national or neighborhood affiliations, membership in a cultural group or a sports club, religious beliefs or profession, family ties or friendship,” notes the museum.

Joseph Chila

The photographs created by the trio of photographers ended up pasted into family albums, framed in living rooms, shared among friends, and sent to distant relatives

Samuel Finlak


“Taken together, the photographs present a vivid panorama of a nation embracing its traditions and local cultures, as well as globalization,” notes the museum. The exhibition was co-curated by David Zeitlyn, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Meanwhile, Art in America recently looked at the state of the art of contemporary African photography, tracing its evolution to the 1990s, which is calls a “turning point” owing to several key projects, including the 1995 founding of the Bamako Encounters, the biennial photography festival in the capital of Mali, and the 1996 exhibition “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was curated by the late Okwui Enwezor.

“What I believe,” said Enwezor in 2016, “is that in the 1990s, a generation of curators, writers, and thinkers who were Africans—and I want to underscore this—made a bid to shift completely away from this ethnographic lens, and its spotlight. We found that the way that this lens thought of Africa was completely at odds with the content.”

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