Photo Cameroon: Studio Portraiture, 1970s-1990s
July 1–December 5, 2021
Photo Cameroon: Studio Portraiture, 1970s–1990s is the first exhibition in the U.S. to look extensively at the work of Cameroonian photographers Jacques Toussele, Joseph Chila, and Samuel Finlak. Along with their well-known counterparts from Mali and Senegal, these artists 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.More than 100 black and white photographs on view—selected from the three artists’ archives—illuminate the aspirations, allegiances, and beliefs of Cameroonians in the post-independence era. Clients collaborated with photographers on the choice of clothing, pose, and props, jointly shaping the image they wished to project, and the artists utilized a range of locations, from formal studios with electric lighting to ad hoc outdoor settings that relied on natural light. Divided into six themes, the exhibition reveals the dynamism of the studio space as a site of civic and individual identity construction.
Commissioning a portrait from a studio photographer was a common practice in post-colonial Cameroon because personal cameras were rare, and beginning in the mid-1950s, the government mandated that all adults must carry an identity card with a photograph. The steady income provided by taking ID photos enabled photographers to offer lower rates on more complex studio commissions—portraits of families, couples, friends, and social gatherings—making them accessible to a wider clientele.
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 sports club, religious beliefs or profession, family ties or friendship. Sitters chose hair styles, T-shirts featuring popular figures, boom boxes, and motorcycles to express their prosperity or their aspirations. Elements reflecting local traditions, such as long flowing garments, hand-dyed indigo cloth (ndop), and other accessories, served as important indicators of community status in the Grassfields region of Cameroon—home to dozens of kingdoms and the birthplace of all three artists. Taken together, the photographs present a vivid panorama of a nation embracing its traditions and local cultures, as well as globalization.