Friday, January 06, 2012


Sharp dressed man on a Vespa 180 Sprint
There's been a recent shift in Fine Art photography with African subject matter; instead of being wholly photos OF Africa by outside professionals, several photographers FROM Africa have finally gotten their due.  The most famous of these is Malick Sidibé, who worked in Mali from the 1960s onwards, documenting street life and capturing the fashions and moods of Mali in his portrait studio (Studio Malick).  Included in his many portraits are a few props from his subject's lives, which often meant small motorcycles and mopeds, with sharp-suited young men or whole families draped over their hard-earned mounts.
Jean Depara in a self-portrait
Congolese photographer Jean Depara (1928-97) is having his first full retrospective, at Maison Revue Noir in Paris, until Feb. 18, 2012.  While his ouevre is similar to Sidibé, although his 'Jean Whiskey Depara photo studio shots were less interesting than photographs of the world he preferred to inhabit; the happening nightclubs and bars of Leopoldville (later, Kinshasa).  Depara bought a camera (an Adox 6cmx6cm) in 1950 to document his wedding, but he became enthralled with image-making, and the interaction of photographer and subject.
Young woman on a Velosolex moped
Leopoldville was named after nightmare King Leopold II of Belgium - his mother Louise Marie d'Orléans may be a distant relation of mine - who used the famous explorer Henry Stanley (the inspiration for Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', and Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now') to lay claim to the Congo as his private property, brutalizing and killing millions of Congolese in the process of extracting valuable rubber.  The Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence in 1960, and in 1966 Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa (after a local tribe who inhabited the area when Stanley established his settlement in 1881), an 'Africanization' process common in formerly colonized countries after liberation. [Only Brazzaville retains the name of a European founder - for more on that, read my article from Men's File #4.]
Late night ramblings around a moped...
Depara was in the thick of a cultural explosion in the mid-60s, as the country experienced an exhilarating wave of energy after independence.  Kinshasa was musically the heart of Africa in the 60s, and Depara spent much of his time around the hot bands and night clubs, where his talents were noted by the famous Franco (Francois Makiadi Luambo), who needed an official photographer.  This suited Depara, who by this time had honed his technique with the camera as an image-maker, and as a tool for seduction of women!

Jean Depara captured an era of curious integration of American culture as well, as local sapeurs (sharp dressers) sometimes wore cowboy outfits - the 'Bills' - and these make an interesting contrast with the work of Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger and his 'Halbstarke'.  Mods and cowboys, women in (or out of) gorgeous dresses, Vespas and mopeds, Depara gives us a glimpse of a very hip world we in 'the rest of the world' didn't have a clue existed. 
The 'Bills', as in Buffalo Bill, with rolled-up jeans and flannel shirts, near the equator!
In the mid-1970s, as revolutions, coups, and communist takeovers swept Africa, Depara was offered a secure position as official photographer of the Congolese parliament, which he held until retirement in 1989.  Uninterested in color photography or the declining profitability of the genre, he hung up his camera afterwards, and lived a comfortable existence with his 'villa and a convertible'.  His work was published outside Congo only after his death in 1996, and is now appreciated by a global audience.
Electrified African music; Kinshasan 'mother of invention' amplification created a completely new genre - Congotronics!


rudgerudge said...

Thanks for the enlightenment.
There is a book "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild that tells in graphic detail of Leopolds nasty ways.

Anonymous said...

Fine pictures ! anyway on the first ,it's a "Sprint" not a "supersport"

The Vintagent said...

Thanks for the Vespa-correcta; changed now.

'King Leopold's Ghost' is an excellent book, thanks for mentioning it. Sadly, there is no corresponding book for Pierre Savorgnan di Brazza and his decency; evil makes a more compelling story! Hence Conrad, Coppola, and Hochschild's fascination with the Belgian Congo...

Perhaps this story was really an excuse to include a link to Congotronics! I love that stuff...

Johnny J. McClodden/ said...

I just have to say , if it don't have that swing , it don't mean a thing !!!!!! Love it ! Love it ! Thanks for sharing , once again . Jon ( upnorth in michigan )

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend the photographic, coffee table-style books of Malick Sidibe (available through Amazon Books, etc.).

When my family lived in Bamako we met this man - unknown, humble, gracious and happy.

Most Africans, no matter how poor, are this way. They tend to display a contagious happiness regardless of their circumstances. A good lesson to us all. And West Africans, particularly Malians, have for centuries been at the forefront of art, whether it be primitive, traditional or modern.

Per the Congo, I will say that there was one grand deed done by the Belgians: Leopold's grandson, King Albert, by persuasion of American Carl Akeley, established Africa's first national park.

Great post Paul. Thank you


mister G said...

Thanks for this. More things I knew nothing of.
The book Red Tape and White Knuckles by Lois Price portrays a very different view of that area as it exists now.