Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Exposure

Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

A journey to Nottingham Contemporary prompts reflection on Tina M. Campt’s method of “writing to art” in Taous R. Dahmani’s review of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Exposure. Dahmani writes to Sepuya’s introspective world, where intricate dialogues between mirrors, photography and identity unfold, challenging traditional spectatorship dynamics. Through a lens of queer and black representation, Sepuya’s work invites viewers to confront societal norms, embrace complexity, and navigate the fluid boundaries of self-presentation.


Taous R. Dahmani | Exhibition review | 14 May 2024

On a morning train to Nottingham, I decided to revisit a passage from Tina M. Campt’s A Black Gaze (2021). When the book came out, I had highlighted this sentence: ‘Seated cross-legged on the floor is my go-to position for writing to art.’ The statement struck a chord with me, prompting a personal vow to try Campt’s method. This visit seemed the perfect chance, but once there, I feared the invigilators might find it unconventional. Would I be allowed to sit on the floor of Nottingham Contemporary, ‘sliding down a wall and claiming the undervalued real estate of a gallery floor,’ as Campt wrote? The reason why I wanted to attempt that strategy in order to “write toPaul Mpagi Sepuya’s exhibition was because Campt claimed it ‘minimis[ed] you as a viewer and maximis[ed] the work itself,’ adding: ‘Looking up at [the artwork] both breaks up and breaks down some of the traditional dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery. And when the subject of that art is Black folks, challenging the dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery is an extremely important intervention.’

I first encountered Sepuya’s work in 2020 at his solo show in London’s Modern Art, where black figuration and constructed stills through layered acts of looking were key. Four years later, upon entering Exposure at Nottingham Contemporary, I was greeted by a camera on a tripod before a black curtain held by a disembodied brown hand and bulldog clips. Facing this first photograph, I noticed my reflection in the protective glass, positioning my head’s shadow where the operator would be. At that moment, I realised that directly facing Sepuya’s work, rather than ‘looking up’ at it, might be beneficial. This exhibition wasn’t the place for Campt’s method of claiming gallery floors; Sepuya’s large-scale pieces demand that we meet them eye-to-eye.

As I approached Mirror Study (_Q5A2059) (2016), I understood that I was looking at Sepuya’s camera – meaning a mirror must have been placed between the lens and me. This apparatus, and placement of the mirror, suggests the artist is more concerned with what surrounds his camera – objects, people, himself – than with the eventual viewers. The mirror acts as a barrier, its thin reflective metal layer atop glass designed to bounce light back, prompting rumination on the idea of reflection, the image created by light and about photography. In The Mirror and the Palette (2021), Jennifer Higgie elucidated that Johannes Gutenberg opened a mirror-making business in 1438, and within just six years, he pioneered the invention of the printing press. This progression connects the concept of reflection to the notion of infinite reproduction, which ultimately lays the groundwork for photographic theory. Indeed, the coexistence of photography and mirrors has become paradigmatic. In his seminal 1978 essay, which serves as the introduction to the catalogue for his exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, John Szarkowski leveraged the metaphor of the mirror to explore the introspective and personal approaches photographers bring to their medium. Similarly, the mirror is an integral part of Sepuya’s artistic process, acting as a catalyst that facilitates layers of analysis of his surroundings. Since 2010, the artist has focused on the artist’s studio as a subject, employing a self-imposed limitation akin to the protocols of a conceptual artist. He describes this approach as a strategy to ‘limit the number of variables as the clearest way to pose a question.’

As I progressed to the next set of images, the initially elusive figure of the photographer gradually emerged. Sepuya skilfully navigates the frame, either concealing or unveiling fragments of his undressed body, and thus, his identity. He delicately reveals details of his anatomy, including the hairs on his neck and arms, and close-ups of his back and torso. Photograph after photograph, his progressive apparition transforms the studio into a stage. We are witnessing the documentation of a performance, a play with characters and, of course, a message. The photographs or the mirror – in Sepuya’s world they are in constant dialogue – predominantly depict self-portraits or portraits of close friends and lovers. Beyond mere self-recognition through self-representation, there is a definitive act of self-presentation; a celebration of the artist’s freedom and agency. The performed gestures subvert gender binaries and reclaim their fluidities, so much so that Sepuya quite literally blurs surfaces and thus boundaries. We observe the movement of bodies on a stage, enacting intimacy and at the same time rendering a political identity that is both queer and black. Sepuya’s photographs recall the words of Judith Butler, who noted in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) that the performative aspect of gender enables subversive actions capable of challenging and destabilising conventional norms. By inviting his friends to act for the mirror-camera in his studio-stage, Sepuya creates an experimental sanctuary for the development of a queer visual language. Engaging with Sepuya’s photographs is not straightforward; they challenge us to interpret and decode, but, at the same time, the repeated frameworks facilitate a steady understanding of his visual strategy. If, indeed, the mirror is not just a reflection but a boundary, then viewers are mere welcomed spectators. The exhibition feels like an invitation to partake in the acknowledgment of too often marginalised queer black and brown individuals. Viewers are brought into their proximity, invited to stand alongside them, yet rightfully kept at bay.

Sepuya’s work draws from a rich history of queer imagery, from the kouros figures of Ancient Greece to Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Snap Shot (1987) and Caravaggio’s ephebes. These motifs have come to symbolise queer identity, thus raising the question: how can we interpret the revival of these motifs in today’s photographic production? As Sepuya bestowed, as an invitation to think complexly, ‘representation is not an agenda,’ and indeed his visual language strives for something more, something that revived, for me, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), Here, Muñoz discusses a process in which individuals tactically interact with societal norms to forge a self that critically diverges from mainstream culture. He emphasises behaviours and gestures as crucial to the identity formation of queers of colour, beginning his book with the statement: ‘There is a certain lure to the spectacle of one queer standing onstage alone, with or without props, bent on the project of opening up a world of queer language, lyricism, perceptions, dreams, visions, aesthetics and politics.” It leads one to question whether Muñoz is actually describing Sepuya’s own photographs some 20-odd-years before their creations.

The studio and its “inhabitants” are constants in Sepuya’s work, existing in a fluid space where time seems relative and ideas and iterations evolve and transform. In the second gallery, elements such as mobile mirror flats from the studio transition into exhibition structures showcasing his latest photographs. Unlike the first room where close examination was encouraged, here Sepuya invites viewers to navigate the photographs, guided by their spatial arrangement. He transforms the space by bridging the private theatricality of the studio with the shared communality of the gallery. Leaving the exhibition, and tucking away my copy with Campt’s book, I was reassured that sitting wasn’t necessary, as Sepuya himself ‘maximises’ his work. He shifts spectator dynamics, elevating and redefining engagement by challenging traditional approaches. On the train back to London, I was left with the feeling that visitors ought to stand in the gallery, embracing homoerotic pleasure, whilst also striving to become accustomed to nuanced discomfort and grappling with complex ideas about image-making. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann Zurich and Paris © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Exposure ran at Nottingham Contemporary until 5 May 2024.


Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of 
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).

Images:

1-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Twilight Studio (0X5A4176), 2022.

2-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Model Study (0X5A7126), 2021.

3-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Daylight Studio Camera Lesson (0X5A2613), 2022.

4-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Pedestal (0X5A8997), 2022.

5-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Studio Mirror (_DSF6207), 2023.

Rahim Fortune

Hardtack

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

In his new book, Hardtack, Rahim Fortune compiles nearly a decade of work, blending documentary with personal history within the context of post-emancipation America. Through coming-of-age portraits that traverse survivalism and land migration, Fortune illustrates African American and Chickasaw Nation communities. As Taous R. Dahmani observes, the iconography of the American South is drawn between Fortune’s Hardtack and Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, released only a few days after — both of which raise questions that serve to redefine ‘Americana’. 


Taous R. Dahmani | Book review | 17 Apr 2024

At the end of March, something very odd happened: Loose Joints dropped Rahim Fortune’s second photobook Hardtack, and, a few days later, Beyoncé released her eighth album Cowboy Carter. I can almost hear you – yes, you, reader – wondering, what’s the connection? Well, there are several. Firstly, it serves as the perfect soundtrack to look at Fortune’s photographs. As if sound was taking form. Beyoncé’s extensive 27-track list echoes Fortune’s 72 photographs; her lyrics resonating with his visual language. Both artists delve into the iconography and sound of cowboys, churches, southern mothers and daughters, rodeo, sashes and Fortune even closes his book with a “Queen Coronation”. Besides this serendipitous overlap, both artists also actively reclaim, redefine and adjust the notion of “Americana”. Wrapped in a denim-like cover, Hardtack speaks of a specific geography and moment: Texas today, the USA in the 2020s.

Beyond the anecdote of their shared Texas origins, both explore the history of the American South – one through music, the other through photography – connecting its past with its present. 2024 is a pivotal election year, with the southern states bearing a significant responsibility in shaping the country’s future (and, arguably, the world’s). Therefore, there is an urgent need to disseminate an alternative understanding or narrative of what the US might be. After all, the title of Fortune’s book, Hardtack, refers to an emergency survival food, made from flour, water and salt, signalling that we are in the midst of a critical juncture. At a time when states are banning books to erase chapters of US history, Hardtack feels like a welcomed defiance.

In her proudly made-in-America “country” album, Beyoncé embraces the soundscape of the southern states and her Black musical heritage, blending blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel. Similarly, an incredible living encyclopaedia of American photography, Fortune quotes – or samples – his ancestors, from Walker Evans’s depictions of southern architecture to Roy DeCarava’s intimate portraits of Black life. Just as Beyoncé pays homage to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music, Fortune channels the social documentary style of Milton Rogovin, his portrayal of African-American communities akin to Earlie Hudnall Jr, and mirrors the political consciousness embodied by Consuelo Kanaga. Furthermore, Fortune examines Arthur Rothstein’s documentation of African-American families in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, originally captured for the Farm Security Administration and later featured in Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). With Hardtack, Fortune engages in a self-conscious dialogue with photography’s history.

The parallel between music and photography transcends mere coincidence; its potency lies in their shared democratic practice and dissemination, but it also resonates with what Tina M. Campt described in A Black Gaze (2021) as a ‘broader commitment to understanding visual culture through its entanglement with sound, and highlighting the centrality of sonic and visual frequency to the work of Black contemporary artists.’ Already, in 2017, Campt beckoned us to listen to images, and more recently, she revisited the idea employing the concept of frequency to challenge ‘how we see’, adding that ‘the physical and emotional labour required to see these images gives us profound insights into the everyday experiences of Black folks as racialised subjects.’ Listening to Fortune’s Hardtack is to pick up on various stories and histories such as the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilts, crafted by descendants of enslaved individuals who toiled on cotton plantations. These local women united to establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, a worker’s cooperative that enabled crucial economic opportunities and offered political empowerment. As Imani Perry eloquently states in the book’s concluding essay: ‘What we know as Black Texas was birthed through captivity. This land has been a bounty; and also a burden.’ Fortune captures the architecture of past power and oppression – the grand plantation houses alongside the slaves’ huts –and the remnants of this legacy, showcasing what barely survives in the wake of US history. Beyoncé’ sings in “YA YA” (2024): “My family lived and died in America, hm / Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh / History can’t be erased, oh-oh / Are you lookin’ for a new America? (America).” In “Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida” (2020), Fortune kneels down to capture the sunlight beaming on the old train tracks, which bear witness to the 1928 Rosewood massacre during the era of Jim Crow laws. In “AMEN” (2024), Beyoncé’s reminds her listener: “This house was built with blood and bone / And it crumbled, yes, it crumbled.

On the following page, Fortune presents a captivating portrait of his partner, Miranda, underscoring that his documentation of the American South is as personal as it is political. With roots in both the African-American and Chickasaw Nation communities, Fortune traverses rural towns that are close to his heart, pausing to engage in conversations with friends. Fortune embraces the formal conventions of documentary traditions whilst ushering us into novel sensations and uncharted emotional territories. Opening the book, we can almost grasp the wind, and, as we delve deeper, we feel the humidity of the Mississippi enveloping us, the scorching sun on the road casting its light upon each image. His photographs record what stands proud, what is forced to break, what disappeared but can still be traced. In Fortune’s photographs, people are praying, watching, playing, waiting, celebrating, caring and driving; leading an unremarkable life because ‘attending to the infraordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane, or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed and the possibility of black futurity.”’ Texas also serves as the backdrop for Fortune’s personal grief – as depicted in his first book I can’t stand to see you Cry (2021) – and serves as a place where remembrance holds paramount importance, as evidenced by the tattooed dates of key life moments on his friend’s skin. Fortune’s Hardtack is a poignant tribute, both a requiem for those lost and a homage to those whose actions altered the course of history. Yet, it is also a celebration, capturing the essence of joy found in everyday moments and special occasions alike. It is this unique and delicate coexistence of remembrance and revelry that imbues Hardtack with its profound resonance, showcasing the depth of Fortune’s artistic maturity.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints. © Rahim Fortune

Hardtack is published by Loose Joints.


Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).

Images:

1-Rahim Fortune, Windmill House, Hutto, Texas, 2022.

2-Rahim Fortune, Praise Dancers, Edna, Texas, 2022.

3-Rahim Fortune, Willies Chapel, Austin, Texas, 2021.

4-Rahim Fortune, Hardware, Granger, Texas, 2018.

5-Rahim Fortune, Highway I-244 (Greenwood), Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2021.

6-Rahim Fortune, Gas Pump, Selma, Alabama, 2023.

7-Rahim Fortune, Deonte, New Sweden, Texas, 2022.

8-Rahim Fortune, Ace (Miss Juneteenth), Galveston, Texas, 2022.

9-Rahim Fortune, Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida, 2020.

10-Rahim Fortune, Tinnie Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 2023.

11-Rahim Fortune, VHS Television, Dallas, Texas, 2021.

12-Rahim Fortune, Abandoned Church, Otter Creek, Florida, 2020.

Writer Conversations #4

Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani is a historian of photography, researcher and writer based between London and Marseille, France. She is currently writing a PhD on the relationship between political actions and photographic gestures. Dahmani is also editor and content advisor at The Eyes, a trustee of the Photo Oxford Festival and on the editorial board of MAI: Visual Culture and Feminism.

Recent writings include “Heeding time: reviewing and rereading Périphérique” in Mohamed Bourouissa, Périphérique (Loose Joints, 2021); “A meeting between the thought of Stuart Hall and the films of John Akomfrah” in Penser avec Stuart Hall (La Dispute, 2021); “Racism and anti-racist struggles in 1970s London: When the walls speak, placards respond!” in Le phototexte engagé – Une culture visuelle du militantisme au XXe siècle (Les Presses du réel, 2021); “From a space of resistance, to the institution’s place: the history of Autograph ABP, between 1988 and 2007” in Marges #33 (2021) and “Bharti Parmar’s True Stories: Against the grain of Sir Benjamin Stone’s Photographic Collection” in PhotoResearcher #30 (2018).

In 2022, Dahmani will contribute a chapter about Polareyes, a magazine by and for Black British women photographers, in Resist, Organize, Build (SUNY Press, 2022), and serve as the curator of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

The very first time I wrote about a photograph was eight years ago in a university exam for my history of photography course. We had three hours to write a “dissertation” – a methodology-heavy French way of writing a “paper”. And it was actually the last time I wrote anything with a pen. I only vaguely remember that I wrote about a Bill Owens photograph and its relation to capitalism. But I vividly remember my eagerness and nascent aspiration.

Fast forward slightly less than a decade and I’m now writing up my PhD as the end product of my journey in French academia. Looking back, this education – its numerous rules and regulations – was a process of acculturation. One way of writing, to perpetuate one way of thinking. On scholarly work, Edward Saïd wrote that it is an ‘on-going activity within an already constituted field of discourse.’ It exists only to be perpetuated as it is.

In 2019, when Tim Clark, Editor in Chief of 1000 Words, invited me to write about a photobook, I welcomed the invitation as a breath of fresh air. I also welcomed the proposal as an opportunity to transcribe, for a wider readership – a conscious reasoning – the accumulation of knowledge and experience that has shaped me as a researcher. This experience started my interest in non-academic writing – its forms and meanings – and its potential for accessibility. As such, this experience was another “first time”.

Today, I feel like I’m playing a tug of war with myself: one team trying to follow presiding ways of writing a PhD thesis; the other exploring the freedom of essay writing. At the end of a long and laborious project such as a PhD thesis, I am embracing the feeling of re-starting, re-becoming an apprentice writer. Originating from the French verb “essayer” (to try), “the essay” is a great form for critical thinking, and I will attempt to weave my academic background into this new form in the future – asking myself, as Daniel C. Blight asked himself a few years ago: ‘What is the politics of essay writing on photography?’ Blending disciplinary disregard and acute consideration for this form.

What is your writing process?

[I’ll answer this question for essay writing only.]

On good days:

  1. I place my phone behind my computer screen – on airplane mode – and have a cuppa to hand.
  2. I put on my earphones with the curious “focus music” which populates YouTube and which helps me create a sort of “concentration bubble”.
  3. I read something: either from the digital pile of PDFs under my “research” folder or from an article I have received in one of the many newsletters that arrive every day in my inbox. Reading gets me focused but reading also produces two things: quotations and ideas.
  4. I jot down reflections about a selected quote. In her book In the Wake (2016), Christina Sharpe points out that: ‘thinking needs care.’ I consider quotations a profound demonstration of care for thinkers and their ideas: they are “thank-yous” to the people who produced knowledge before us. They are also invitations for curious readers: footnotes open never-ending “reading pathways”.
  5. The accumulation of quotes and notes – and sometimes interviews with photographers – form my “base”. When I’m not rushed by a deadline I let the reading, the note taking and the “base creation” percolate. The longer the better, the essay will “live” and “evolve” in my mind, creating new possible directions.
  6. When the deadline is approaching, I start a new Word document and write a first draft “from scratch”. The first sentence takes courage, the second trust. I can’t start writing an essay if I don’t have a clear orientation – often found during the “percolating period”. I tend to think that essays need to make a point, be a demonstration not a decoration. But, might not the best one be precisely both?
  7. I go back to my “base” to “feed” the first draft of the essay. I add precision. Because of which kind of photographs/photographers I am writing about, I am wary of ambiguity or obscurity. I make sure any complex ideas mentioned are mobilised in an intelligible way: I want to make sure they are accessible and in accordance with the assumed readership.
  8. I think and write in French and English. Early drafts of most of my texts are written in both languages which ultimately leads to me feeling sorry for myself when something “comes out” fine in one language but doesn’t translate well. Often, this kickstarts a process where I juggle between a French-English dictionary and a Thesaurus. Another challenge of writing in both these languages is having to navigate different levels of “discourse acceptance”: concepts and ideas are not similarly established in different countries; references and words might need to be explained differently (especially in the fields of critical race theory and postcolonial studies).
  9. I remove the earphones to read the paragraph written out loud, I correct and I rectify. I repeat the process as many times as there are paragraphs. This list was read at least five times.

On bad days:

I generally love listening to podcasts or watching interviews of people who talk in detail about their craft and practice. So, on bad days, I turn to writers who have written about writing. I often think of this Marguerite Duras quote: ‘One cannot write without bodily strength. One must be stronger than oneself to approach writing; one must be stronger than what one is writing.’

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

The last five years of my life have been dedicated to my doctoral research. My thesis is articulated, in a nutshell, around the photographic representation of struggles and the struggle for photographic representation in England from the end of the 1960s to the end of the ’80s. Most of my essays, so far, have been more or less inspired by my ongoing obsession with image-making and political action whether expressed in iconographies or ecosystems (or ‘worlds’ to reference Howard S. Becker).

That said, most of my essays have been dedicated to very contemporary artists/photographers and, as such, most of them have tried to “respond” to image-makers that ‘create dangerously’ to quote Edwidge Danticat, who describes that process as such: ‘[It] is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.’ I’m motivated by disobedient artists-photographers. I’m driven by the problems defiant image-makers highlight. Their insubordination can be found in their craft or form, in their practice or discourse. They are oppositional in their way of behaving with, around or against photography. Their rebellion can be loud or whispered – I’ll listen.

What kind of reader are you? 

As a doctoral researcher, reading is a great part of my day-to-day work. As such, libraries become toolboxes and books instruments towards the completion of a project. The Stakhanovic nature of a PhD means that I rarely re-read books – with the significant exception of bell hooks whom I could read every day. If I re-read an article, it is often in order to “double check” or “make sure”.

However, the first lockdown taught me the power of re-reading and reading several books at the same time: realising that, often, as with a person, you need the “right time” to truly discover a book’s content. To take an example, I had always “used” Roland Barthes’ theories (and taught Camera Lucida (1980) in exactly the same way it had been passed down by my professor), but, with my recent dive into essay writing, I started paying attention to the confidentiality, familiarity and sensitive nature of his work: making him a thousand times more interesting.

So, as I’m trying to become another kind of writer, I’m becoming another kind of reader: trying to find the route towards an embodied strategy of narration that exists at the meeting place of gut (biography) and brain (history/theory). A delicate balance between decency and intelligibility. I have to say that I have come a long way: French academic education forbids expressions of subjectivity or opinion – or more exactly, uses objectivity to hide the dominants’ point of views. The first time I wrote “I” to start a sentence I felt a blast of freedom on my keyboard. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), Johanna Russ wrote: ‘Although crammed with facts and references, [women’s writing] has the wrong style; it is personal and sounds unscholarly, a charge often levelled at modern feminist writing. That is, the tone is not impersonal, detached, and dry enough – in short, not patriarchal enough – to produce belief.” As you can imagine, reading beacons such as Saidiya V. Hartman, Sharpe and Tina M. Campt for the first time was extremely arresting.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I struggle with this question. For me, one can only compare similar elements and the contrast between the experience of reading and the experience of visiting an exhibition is too dissimilar: providing disparate bodily and intellectual experiences. Being a reader and being a viewer/spectator are two distinct positions. However, I guess we could maybe examine the knowledge produced by catalogues vs. magazines, journals and other sorts of publications. Such an investigation might quickly lead us back to accessibility (price, printed/online, language, themes, etc.). The performative aspect of exhibitions – if the work of going through the doors of a gallery/museum is achieved – makes it probably more approachable. In the age of social media, we face very different ethics of attention and, as a result, disparate receptions/reactions/effects.

That said, if I really have to answer the question, I would say that the “prominent” status of exhibitions over theories/histories that you seem to detect is probably only the result of radical and forward-thinking theorists and historians. Good exhibitions are made by curators (and artists) who read. I have a hard time imagining the act of thinking – or giving shape to ideas – without writing, so I’m guessing curation is another form of writing. Curating can then become a translation and even a visual/embodied comment on theories/histories. Exhibitions can be powerful rhetorical demonstrations. Yet, the limitations of exhibition-making are much more real than the limits of words on paper (publication aside). For me, the main question is who writes and who curates and which platforms these people are given. How we know what we know and who is allowed to share what they know?

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

This is an extremely hard question. But to answer, I would say 1. their politics 2. their attention to detail 3. their humanity.

  1. Marguerite Duras wrote that writing is: ‘Screaming without sound’. When I read Hartman, Hannah Arendt, Ariella Aïcha Azoulay, Etel Adnan and Trinh T. Minh-ha, I hear their screams. If anger is pain with nowhere to go, writing then becomes a sort of socially accepted “place”. Political anger translated into words is definitely something I admire in these writers. I would also like to mention a young generation of badass writers such as Legacy Russell and her Glitch Feminism manifesto (2020) or Durga Chew-Bose’s singular writing in Too Much and Not the Mood (2017).
  2. A focus on a detail, such as a cup of coffee let’s say, can be a powerful rhetorical node, as revealed beautifully by Mahmoud Darwish in Memory for Forgetfulness (1982). I’m not a very patient person, and struggle with the exercise of description, so, recently, when I read A Black Gaze (2021) by Campt, I was quite mesmerised by the attention she seems to give to descriptions of the art works she mobilises (the same consideration/scrutiny can be found in Listening to Images (2017) for example). A detail can also be an anecdote that becomes a compelling argument. In the same book, Campt explains the effect of the weather on her experience of an exhibition: this opened many threads of thought.
  3. I’m a big reader of autobiographies and in-depth interviews because of the possibility of hearing the artists’ voices. But, the ability of writers such as Olivia Laing, for example, to emphasise her own and artists’ human experiences is definitely something I admire. I never thought I would care so much about someone like Andy Warhol until I read The Lonely City (2016). I also love artists such as Coco Fusco who write about other artists – they tend to reveal a very distinctive perspective on the artworks they write about. I like books that are accounts of being and guides for becoming. I also like writers, who are not “writers” as such: recently I read a text written by a photographer, for the first time, wrote about a decade of work. Vasantha Yogananthan’s essay, in his latest photobook Amma (2021), moved me greatly because of his bravery in writing about his journey as a photographer with the most generous vulnerability.

What texts have influenced you the most?

[Influence seems like a big word, but, off the top of my head, here is a non-exhaustive list of names, in no particular order, with endless recognition for carrying me through years of doctoral research.]

Edwidge Danticat Jacques Rancière Gayatri Spivak Marie-José Mondzain Allan Sekula Frantz Fanon W.J.T Mitchell Fred Moten James Baldwin Shawn Michelle Smith John Berger Paul Ricoeur Susan Sontag Sara Ahmed Stuart Hall Judith Burtler Simon de Beauvoir Eric Hazan Julia Kristeva Angela Y. Davis Adrienne Rich Nicholas Mirzoeff Edouard Glissant Christina Sharpe Elsa Tamara Trodd Dorlin Jo Spence Sarah Lewis Victor Burgin Kobena Mercer Laura Mulvey Chris Kraus Steve Edwards Lucy R. Lippard Val Williams Elvan Zabunyan Mieke Bal Jacqueline Bobo Hazel V. Carby Eddie Chambers Patricia Hill Collins Sandra Harding Elizabeth Edwards Anna Backman Rogers Siona Wilson Harriet Riches Paul Gilroy bell hooks Heidi Safia Mirza Griselda Pollock Rozsika Parker Liz Wells Deborah Willis Pratibha Parmar David A. Bailey Roshini Kempadoo Sarat Maharaj Gilane Tawados Ambalavaner Sivanandan Maurice Berger John Tagg Albert Memmi Saul Alinsky Antonio Gramsci Audre Lorde C.L.R. James Edward Saïd Homi K. Bhabha Fatima Mernissi Walter Rodney Achille Mbembe Frieda Ekotto Derek Walcott Patrick Chamoiseau Mahmoud Darwish Paul B. Preciado Tina M. Campt Saidiya Hartman Hannah Arendt Ariella Aïcha Azoulay Etel Adnan Aruna D’Souza Teju Cole Trinh T. Minh-ha and many others that I’ll regret not naming once this interview is published.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I am tempted to give a somewhat literal answer to this question: addressing geography and platforms. The hegemony of the English language and concomitantly the predominance of the global North in knowledge dissemination (not production) questions “the place of criticality in photography writing now”. Published and widely circulated criticality in photography is not diverse or inclusive enough. However, the recent publication of Dark Mirrors (2021) by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is an inspiring step for critical writing.

Then comes the question of where does one find critical thinking (as opposed to journalism) in photography today? A few online platforms (in English) exist, a couple of publishers defend it – that’s it (in France, outside academia, it’s almost non-existent for example). Critical consciousness certainly exists, the lack of platforms to express it is, for me, an important aspect today. Without sounding boards, it is difficult to develop true debate and exchange or create space for a diversity of equal voices to express themselves.

Lastly, I feel like the place of criticality in photography writing now is in complexifying “recently acknowledged” notions/ideas/struggles. Lately, oppositions around photographer Deana Lawson’s iconography are for me fascinating “places” of criticality, for example. Debate is probably one of the greatest signs of the recognition of a multi-layered artist and a complex body of work.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Taous R. Dahmani © Lynn S.K

2-Book cover of Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983)

3-Book cover of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake – On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016)