I followed Jehad Nga‘s work before on Somali Pirates and US Marines. It is in consideration of those two inquiries, and of Nga’s similar depiction of Kenyan boxers, I wonder about Nga’s choice to use the same shaft-of-light-in-the-dark technique to photograph the Turkana people of Northern Kenya. WSJ Online didn’t mention Nga’s repetition of form.
Turkana at Bonni Benrubi Gallery is 10 chromogenic large scale color works, framed in black with no mat and mounted to Plexi. DLK Collection has just reviewed Nga’s exhibition at Bonni Benrubi:
“I think these portraits walk a tricky line between powerful and moving imagery and a less savory anthropological examination. While the photographic approach may be modern, there is a whiff of old stereotypes risen again: poor Africans, inspiringly proud and beautiful in their destitution. Nga’s pictures undeniably draw the viewer into the individual narrative of a specific person or family. Having been successfully sucked in, we then ask what these images have to tell us that is new; this is where I was left a bit puzzled. Maybe the answer is that unfortunately things haven’t changed much, and we are still faced with the same societal challenges that have thwarted us for decades. As a result, I left the gallery with mixed feelings: impressed by the strength of the emotion that these images could elicit, but depressed by the conclusion that we are still telling the same African stories.”
If DLK had accounted for Nga’s earlier projects it may have retreated away from attributing Nga’s technique to echoes of colonial ethnographic photography.
The real problem with Nga’s photography is that it’s production is a performance in which he as the photographer is implicated. Nga’s work is art, there can be no doubt. Nga’s portraiture will always bestow dignity upon sitters, but never inherently any understanding of the sitter. He is a director of his world.
STALKING THE ENVIRONMENT
Nga speaks well about My Shadow, My Opponent – photographs of Kenyan boxers. I especially like Nga’s comparison between the boxers in Kibera, Nairobi and US marines in Iraq in how they behave the longer they exist as a group.
Nga also offers this, “what attracted me initially was less the story component of a boxing gym, more-so the environment.”
Nga tempts us in with silky colour-saturated and pitch black prints. We are then duty-bound to position ourselves politically or emotionally with the subject; this is a lose-lose strategy.
Instead, we should be using Nga’s work as a springboard of natural interest into the very specific problems pertaining to this region of the world. Is a gallery wall the best way to reach the largest possibly number of potential supporters? Personally, I don’t think so, but this is a problem of distribution not solely one for the artists.
I support DLK’s expression of unease but I must disagree that, “Nga’s pictures undeniably draw the viewer into the individual narrative of a specific person or family.” Really? I see a lot of similar looking photographs.
I don’t think the issue is that things “haven’t changed much”, it’s that photographers and consumers of media haven’t changed enough, and Nga has hardly changed at all.
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The British Journal of Photography interviewed Jehad recently, and Tewfic El-Sawy has been following Nga’s career closely for years (which for me brings up another debate we should be having about photographers now developing under the gaze of the photography blogosphere … but for another time!)