“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.
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.
Through more than 100 black and white photographs selected from the artists’ archives, the exhibition illuminates the aspirations, allegiances and beliefs of Cameroonians since 1960, when their nation gained its independence. Clients collaborated with photographers on the choice of clothing, pose and props, jointly shaping the image they wished to project, and the artists used 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.
“The photographs in this exhibition will give viewers a glimpse into the incredible diversity that characterizes the Grassfield region of Cameroon,” said Erica Jones, the Fowler’s curator of African arts. “The sitters introduce us to a range of religious and cultural groups in the region, their urban and rural experiences, and various moments of private and public lives.”
Commissioning a portrait from a studio photographer was a common practice in postcolonial 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 a sports club, religious beliefs or profession, family ties or friendship. Sitters chose hairstyles, 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.
The exhibition’s co-curator is David Zeitlyn, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford. It is supported by the Fowler Museum Exhibition Fund and the Jay T. Last and Deborah R. Last Endowment.
Admission to the museum is free. For museum hours, parking information and more, visit the Fowler Museum website.