La Relève, 1982, by Sanlé Sory

Les Amoureux Yougou Yougou, 1980, by Sanlé

Tête à Têtes: West African Portraiture from Independence into the 21st Century

David Hill’s exhilarating Tête à Tête exhibition of portraits by some of the most important photographers in West Africa bristles with optimism, energy and excitement. The photographs celebrate the joy of liberation post-1960, the year when nineteen African countries were granted independence over a period of only two months. They also endorse photographer Malik Sidibé’s comment that “photography is all about youth”.

Sidibé documented the transition period after colonialism in his hometown in Mali with studio portraits, events and social functions. The exhibition includes four of his unique “chemises”, tiny prints of photographs he took at events in 1965 and glued to cardboard sleeves. The following day he used them as a marketing tool to sell prints of his shots to people who had taken part in the party or dance. Most of the negatives have been lost but the original chemises are now on show in major American museums and his work has been recognised in awards from the Hasselblad Foundation and the Venice Biennale.

Je Vais Décoller, 1977, by Sanlé Sory

Les Afro-Pop, 1973, by Sanlé Sory

Music is a thread which runs through the exhibition. David Hill first came across the photographs when he was “avidly searching for vinyl” in Burkina Faso, formally Upper Volta, he explains. Some of the African record dealers casually offered him black and white photographs featuring vibrant young people celebrating their new life. Some were dancing to new Western music, wearing traditional costumes or modern fashion inspired by the recently available cinema.

A sixteen-minute video of the exhibition uses tracks from the 1970s as a backing for the portraits. The music by Albarika perfectly complements the energy and excitement of the images. The Albarika catalogue, which was originally recorded on EMI equipment from Lagos, will shortly be reissued, re-mastered by The Carvery Studio.

Tête-à-Têtes: in conversation film with curators David Hill and Carrie Scott

Sanlé Sory, who started his career in Burkina Faso in 1960, has twelve portraits in the exhibition and was the first African photographer to have a show in an American museum. His work celebrates the new youth culture often using intricate backcloths, painted by a Ghanaian artist. His subjects dressed in traditional or edgy modern outfits and accessories have been described by the New Yorker as “metropolitan, worldly and cool.”

One example is The Pirate, inspired by a Western film, where a young man is seen wearing a tall hat, brandishing a sword and shield. This shot was apparently an imitation of Errol Flynn. In another photograph a young man is attempting to board an aeroplane, a symbol of his new freedom. Sory’s work also has a connection with music. As well as photography and journalism he worked closely with his brother, sometimes illustrating sleeves for the albums he produced.

Rachidi Bissiriou’s photographs have never been shown before, not even in his home village in central Benin where he set up his Studio Pleasure studio from 1968 to 1985 working with a Yashica twin-lens medium format camera. Many of his subjects were neighbours and friends he had known for years. Individuals and groups were captured in the street or casually posed on a motorbike in traditional dress, all appearing relaxed and at home. The lighting and composition is remarkably contemporary, says David Hill.

Untitled, 1978, by Rachidi Bissiriou

Untitled, 1985, by Rachidi Bissiriou

The fourth photographer exhibited is Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou who founded the first photographic school in Benin. Born in Porto Novo 1965 he was trained by his father. They travelled together in a mobile daylight studio often shooting people against colourful traditional fabrics. The exhibition includes two of his 2011 portraits of Yoruba men dressed in traditional Egungun costume which incorporates appliqued panels and woven motifs drawn from Yoruba, Islamic and European tradition. The wearer’s face is hidden by a net face panel.

This elaborate dress evokes the Yoruba-speaking people’s divine spiritual ancestors and is sometimes worn at masquerades and funerals where they are said to guide the deceased to the spirit world. Agbodjélu’s work may also be seen in recent magazines in advertisements for the Louis Vuitton, which commissioned him to shoot its spring collection.

Untitled, 1968, by Rachidi Bissiriou

Untitled, 1982, by Rachidi Bissiriou,

Tête à Têtes –West African Portraiture from Independence into the 21st century exhibition is showing at the David Hill Gallery, Ladbroke Grove, London W10 6HA until 27 November 2020