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The Lay of the Land, New Photography from Africa


The Lay of the Land marks the beginning of The Walther Collection’s new multi-year exhibition series on contemporary photography and video art from Africa and the African Diaspora. Presented thematically from 2015 to 2017, and surveying a diverse range of new and commissioned work, the series provides for an in-depth engagement with emerging artists by building upon the collection’s longstanding focus on African photography. In the winter and spring of 2016, The Lay of the Land will be followed by a group show on contemporary social documentary photography and portraiture, and an exhibition investigating body and performance through video art and conceptual photography. The series will culminate in spring 2017 with a major exhibition at The Walther Collection’s museum in Neu-Ulm, Germany, which will be accompanied by a catalogue co-published by Steidl.

The Lay of the Land examines photographic approaches to the built environment and the postcolonial African cityscape, bringing together the work of Edson Chagas, François Xavier Gbré, and Mame-Diarra Niang—three young artists born a generation after the wave of African independence movements in the 1960s. United by their vivid attention to color and form, the artists depict physical structures and public spaces with a nuanced consideration of social contexts. Drawn from series taken in various African cities, The Lay of the Land portrays monumental civic buildings and banal apartment towers, political murals and capitalist developments, profiling sites discovered on travels abroad or journeys through familiar neighborhoods. These images of physical structures—captured from striking vantage points and often imbued with emotional, social, and historical significance—communicate the various contradictions present in contemporary urban life. Rather than conveying only documentary statements, Chagas, Gbré, and Niang’s works instead establish an open-ended dialogue about social identity amidst shifting visual narratives of the environment.

In his ongoing series, Found Not Taken, Edson Chagas creates abstract compositions from everyday scenes. Capturing a battered football in front of a crumbling cobalt façade or discarded satellite dish lying prone on an inclined street, his photographs often conjure the vibrant palette of color-field painting. Yet despite their conventional subject matter, the images from Found Not Taken are deeply rooted in the specific social scenes of the urban environment. With his concentration on objects discarded on the streets of Luanda, Chagas stages a subtle critique of globalized consumerism. Through his quiet, uniformly framed images, he transforms fragments of architecture and unremarkable materials into mysterious icons or talismans.

François-Xavier Gbré studies the buildings, monuments, and infrastructure of cities. In his untitled constellation of sixty-three small-scale, intricately connected architectural photographs, Gbré links together an array structures and landscapes from Israel, France, Togo, Bénin, Mali, and Senegal. Arranged in an associative grid, the images move between interior and exterior, surface and frame. Three larger prints extracted from the series show the subtle details of Gbré’s approach. These include the National Printing House of Porto-Novo, Benin; a petrol station in Mali with a trompe l’oeil landscape painting; and the striking view of the ocean at a construction site in Dakar, where a massive building under construction is transforming a natural vista into a private landscape. A site-specific wallpaper print, commissioned for The Lay of the Land, creates an immersive view inside the former Governor’s Palace in Lomé, Togo.While Gbré’s photographs of West African capitals are devoid of people, they remain dense with information about the connections between architecture and national consciousness.

In her three series Sahel Gris, At the Wall,and Metropolis,Mame-Diarra Niang investigates the plasticity of territory in Dakar and Johannesburg.Using flat color planes and rhythmic geometric patters as raw material, Niang organizes compositions around the horizon line as she moves from location to location. Wandering through a new housing development in Dakar, Niang shot the entire series Sahel Gris in one hour. She continued her exploration of the city in At the Wall, driving through Dakar and photographing continuously from a taxi window. Progressing from the periphery to the center, Niang’s most recent series,Metropolis, renders Johannesburg with bold strokes of color, dizzying patterns, and the abstracted forms of monumental urban structures. Through the juxtaposition of these series, Niang re-draws the map of a new city, reframing her own territory within a mythological landscape.

Edson Chagas (b. 1977, Luanda, Angola; lives and works in Luanda) studied photography at the University of Newport in Wales, London College of Communication, Escola Técnica de Imagem e Comunicação in Portugal, and Centro Comunitário de Arcena in Portugal. In November 2015, Chagas will be featured in Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art. His work has been shown in group exhibitions including the 11th Novo Banco award exhibition at the Museu Coleção Berdardo, Lisbon (2015); Journal, Institute of Contemporary Art, London (2014); No Fly Zone. Unlimited Mileage, Faust, Hannover, Germany (2014); and the travelling exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists (2014–2015). A selection from the Found Not Taken serieswas awarded the Golden Lion for the Angolan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

François-Xavier Gbré (b. 1978, Lille, France; lives and works in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) studied photography at the École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques in Montpellier and later worked in fashion and design photography in Milan. Gbré’s work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions including The Past is a Foreign Country, Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Haverford College (2015); Abroad, Art Twenty One, Lagos, Nigeria (2014); Surfaces and Fragments, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (2013, 2014); DAK’ART: The 11th Dakar Biennale, Dakar, Senegal (2014); FLOW, Kyoto City University of Arts Gallery, Japan (2014); New Africa, Kulte Editions, Casablanca, Morocco (2014); We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, U.K. (2012); Rencontres de Bamako–The African Biennale of Photography (2009, 2011); and Uprooting the Gaze, Brighton Photo Fringe, U.K. (2010).

Mame Diarra Niang (b. 1982 Lyon, France; lives and works in Paris and Dakar), a self-taught artist and photographer, was raised between Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and France. Niang’s work has been featured in solo shows at Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg (2014) and Institut Français, Dakar (2013), and group shows including Cosmos Arles Books, Rencontres d’Arles, Arles, France (2015); Nine Artists, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town (2015); Dakar Biennale Off (2014); and Le Piéton de Dakar at the Institut Français of Dakar (2013).

The Lay of the Land
New Photography from Africa
Edson Chagas, François-Xavier Gbré, and Mame-Diarra Niang
September 10, 2015–January 16, 2016
Walther Collection Project Space de New York
526 W 26th St
New York, NY 10001
(212) 352-0683

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