PHILIP KWAME APAGYA
fascinating images from the realms of commercial studio portraiture -
- february 2001 -
in africa, a photo studio is the place where dreams come true. for a few pence, ordinary mortals can strike a pose and achieve immortality, have things they haven't got and may never have, be people they are not and may never be, have access to the inaccessible. people start asking for personal portraits that go beyond the image usually present on identity papers, often the only 'popular portrait' available. this open new roads to the art of photographic portrait, with possibility for the artist to catch
special moments in people's existence: people ask for a picture for several reasons, but with the common desire
to have a 'funny picture'. in this process, new forms of self-representation become part of a new social identity:
this is the framework in which we might consider the work of philip kwame apagya.
philip kwame apagya's formal portraits in front of commissioned painted backgrounds seem to be suspended between realism and a sort of naïvité, they are both unreal and hyperealistic: the dreams of african people are put on stage - against scenery which praises consumer society.
the subject stands in front of a painted backdrop that portrays everything people dream of having: fake new england country houses
showing off some porcelain, VCRs and TVs in bar closets, modern kitchens with well-stocked refrigerators
with coke and cheetos... portraits with with a quarter / half / full smile, because nobody in africa is really deceived by make-believe...
but for one glorious moment they can have it all.
these portraits are highly amusing for us, 'western people', but are also unintentionally disturbing because of the insight they offer into a growing cultural vacuum. this is the dream, and it is empty and materialistic.
african photography since photography was invented in europe, it is customary to think of it as primarily a western activity,
africa photographed by africans is something that likewise could escape attention as the photographs of africa which we see every day are almost without exception made by western photographers.
traditionally, african cultures refrained from photography for many carried the belief that to be photographed was to have one
spirit taken away. african photos operated as codes in a society in which the image one projected was very important.
the british policy of 'indirect rule' enabled africans in the territories colonized by great britain to learn european
techniques earlier than others, so that the ghanaians were familiar with photography from the turn of the century. the arrival of the box camera in the 1920s speeded up the democratization of photographic techniques. the camera blossomed in the hands of indigenous photographers as colonialism waned and the ghanaians adopted photography for themselves - initially by touching up photos, then through photo-montage and finally in the form of painted scenery that played a part in ghanaian social life. the painted background is an heritage from europe, and represents an intermediate step between painted portraits and photographic portraits.