Erik Martiny

Expanding Beauty

African Biennale of Photography in Bamako, Mali, 8th December 2022 – 8th February 2023.


This year’s upcoming African Biennale of Photography in Bamako aims to embrace composite, layered and fragmented identities. Focusing on transition and transformation, difference and divergence, its avowed aim is to defy definition.

The fair is to feature over seventy different African artists in five themed sections, each reflecting a movement in Aimé Césaire’s famous poem “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun”.

Many of the artists selected are themselves bi-cultural or multi-ethnic, embodying the biennale’s thematic interest in multiplicity and freedom from easy classification. You can see how Austrian-Nigerian photographer David Uzochukwu’s work fits snugly into this niche. You might say the fair seems bespoke tailored to embrace him.

The Biennale’s focus on the interstitial, the transitional and the metamorphic is hardly new in the world of academia and the arts but it’s such a vast, all-encompassing concept that it feels as adventurous as it was forty years ago when postcolonial, queer, norm-and-gender-bending art first attracted attention.

Ample proof of this fertility is provided in Uzochukwu’s work. Born in 1998, Uzochuwku comes from a generation of self-taught photographers like American-born Alex Stoddard: precocious digital artists who have featured in high-profile venues alongside professional fine art and commercial photographers from a very early age, having learned the artistry of photography and digital reconfiguration from online tutorials.

Calling Uzochukwu a wunderkind is no exaggeration: he started working with his mother’s camera at the age of ten. In the years that followed, Uzochukwu quickly became an Instagram sensation. At the tender age of sixteen, he was named EyeEm Photographer of the Year and one of Flickr’s 20under20.

By the age of seventeen, Uzochukwu was already working on photographs of the singer FKA Twigs in an advertising campaign for Nike. He has worked with countless fashion magazines, with stars such as Pharrell Williams, IBEYI and Benjamin Clementine. His collaborations include work for traditional fashion designers ranging from Dior to more experimental, cutting edge houses like Iris Van Herpen. If you’ve been to the cinema lately, you will have noticed his awe-inspiring atmospheric commercial for Terre d’Hermès: its stunning cinematography tends to outclass the feature film you see after the adverts. It comes as no surprise that the British Journal of Photography has called Uzochukwu “one to watch”.

Uzochukwu started shooting pictures of his younger sister and quickly moved on to friends, strangers and professional models, but like Gen Z photographers Brian Oldham and Alex Stoddard, his signature early pictures tended to be digitally-modified, surreal self-portraits.

Uzochukwu has also cited Gregory Crewdson’s fantastical photographs as a key inspiration. Although he was far from having Crewdson’s budget, Uzochukwu managed to create highly arresting surreal imagery that stays imprinted on your retina.

The self-portraiture in his Familiar Ruin (2016) series features the photographer partly covered in what looks like black tar dribbling down from his face. An inside look at these visually-arresting shots reveals that the black substance was confected out of chaffed coal. Uzochukwu says he confected the admixture from pieces of coal fragmented on a cheese-grater. He then mixed the shavings with oil to create a viscous fluid capable of oozing becomingly down his skin.

When I asked Uzochukwu if climate action ranked high on his list of priorities, he said “it’s calming that the topic has become less calm in recent years”. He observed that he finds himself returning to his fascination for powdered coal in his most recent photographs, being eager to explore “the overlap between environmental concerns and questions of race”. The semi-liquid coal he fashions for his work provides a multivalent symbol capacious enough to reference both Black skin and fossil fuel simultaneously. It’s heartening to see that while Uzochukwu adheres strictly to Woke concepts, he is not averse to taking iconographic risks within the framework of politically-correct awareness raising. His recourse to paradox and double-edged symbolism offers a potent counterblast to critics of Woke who anticipate reduced profundity in the arts. Uzochukwu’s symbolicaly-charged icons prove that PC art doesn’t preclude rule-breaking, layered depth and departure from strict doxy.

Such conceptual risks work very well on a visual level, and taken separately in different readings each strand of the symbol functions coherently. Uzochukwu has underscored the suffering engendered by the racializing gaze and how theorized notions of race are still used to alienate people of colour, a form of estrangement that compares well to the feeling of being covered in petrol like a seabird in an oil slick.

The ongoing Mare Monstrum/Drown in My Magic series draws explicit parallels between Black people and the ocean. The impulse behind it was the photographer’s desire to create Black mermaids and more generally to breaking down barriers between the human and what we normatively perceive as monstrous. This myth-exploring endeavour took on a more political dimension. Shot in a coastal town in Senegal, some photographs allude to the refugees who drown when they embark on risk-laden sea crossings to Europe.

Uzochukwu points out that documentary photographs devoted to the subject tend to emphasize the undignified, dehumanized positions of beached shipwreck victims. He told me that the aim of this series was for migrants “to be seen through a super-loving gaze”. So while pictures like “Slab” underline vulnerability and victimhood, they also charge the victim with Christ-like reverence. The bleeding man depicted is wearing a nacreous pink loincloth that echoes the colour of the sea and the salt-encrusted beach. Uzochukwu’s yearning to create a sense of belonging in his melding of body and landscape is palpable in every shot.

Other photos in the series combine vulnerability and power in more obvious ways, offering a bold departure from conventional Woke orthodoxies. Instead of highlighting only sensitivity, these pictures provide audacious enactments of resilience and strength. Uzochukwu has pointed out the paradox that it takes a lot of valiant strength to remain openly vulnerable and sensitive.

“Buoyant” adopts an even more explicit allusion to Christ crucified, the emphasis being on transcendence and resurrection rather than destruction and drowning. The somewhat androgynous model’s iridescent, scale-studded dress seamlessly flows like watered fabric through the sea; the crucified position of her arms emphasises floating and survival. The shot brilliantly balances the movement of life (the agitated water at the figure’s feet) within stasis (the ripple-free immobility of the arms).

“Shudder” portrays a man lying seemingly downcast and prostrate on the beach but the lower part of his body from the torso down is a scintillating surreal ribbon undulating through the air like the silk sleeves in Loie Fuller’s iconic Serpentine Dance.

“Shoulder” likewise portrays a victim whose spiky dorsal fin suggests an affinity for the liquid element. The series’ punning reference to the Roman control over the Mediterranean in the Latin expression mare nostrum is transformed into a vision of hybrid, beauty-affirming monstrosity that is empowering and heart-warmingly magical. The act of drowning is refunctioned as a magical aesthetic gesture endowed with restorative potential.

Although this may seem a little escapist—Uzochukwu has conceded that these pictures were taken at a time when he himself craved safety and avoidance of conflict in his own life—the series does not turn a blind eye on the socioeconomic hardships that asylum seekers face.

Uzochukwu conceives of his photography as “a space for people to look into themselves”. The mirror-like structure of “Styx” enhances this call to reflection: it depicts a group of timeless naked people crowded together on a rock in the middle of the sea, cleverly nodding at the overcrowded boats which migrants are forced to take to cross the sea. The emotionally understated atmosphere it generates carries the poignancy of Eugène Delacroix’s Raft of the Medusa, while its mythological title underscores the purgation of souls awaiting oblivion in the Stygian waters of timeless Antiquity.

Uzochukwu’s iconography tends to actively court ambiguity. The mirroring effect of the water’s refection suggests the duplicity of Uzochukwu’s vision: these figures are naked in the sense of being bare and deprived, but they are also nude—proud and beautiful bodies. Likewise, the blood imagery in “Regrowth” and “Let Love Drip” from the I, Other series is simultaneously both gory and regenerative in the manner of new-born babies or vulnerable vampires bathed in blood.

Uzochukwu’s pictures capture the uneasiness of transitional moments in the most alluringly sensuous ways. “Gurgle”, a self-portrait, offers man-fish hybridity in a way that is gorgeously sensual. Uzochukwu is also adept at the very subtly erotic: “Timoer” depicts a male nipple behind knobby flower buds in a way that places man and nature in powerful conjunction. “Broken from the Colony”, a recent addition to the Mare Monstrum series, is so discreetly homoerotic that you don’t at first notice that the two flower-and-water-laced figures are men.

When I asked Uzochukwu if he was ever tempted to cross the line from eroticism into the overtly sexual, he said that the border was “a super interesting line to toe” and that he was considering exploring queer sexuality in more explicit ways.

“Spring Fever” points towards how this might go. The nude self-portrait represents the artist as a hybrid, orgasmically open-mouthed praying mantis. Uzochukwu told me he chose the mantis rather than another insect because the mantis is “so streamlined”; he also wished to suggest the empowering notion of “inherent danger”. Uzochukwu pointed out how during the first covid lockdown his body suddenly felt threatening to others. It made him want to capture the paradox of a dystopian situation in an idyllic vernal setting.

Just as some pictures blur the line between the genders, others blur the distinction between Black and White. Being himself mixed race, Uzochukwu is keen to explore the melding of traditionally polarized binary oppositions. “Maybe It Is” depicts an albino African. Combined with the self-embracing figure with closed eyes, the bare vegetation of the backdrop offers a forceful tension between self-possessed power and vulnerability in bare, near-hostile surroundings, but again the pale skin tone is harmoniously married to the pink-grey hues of the sky suggesting integration. In a similar vein, “Uprising” shows a Black man with a white beard and blond wind-twined dreadlocks: the twisting coils of his hybrid serpentine body are also both brown and white.

When I asked Uzochukwu if his future photographs would tend towards the post-racial, he added that race was already not a central concern in his work “but more of a framework”. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s theorization of hierarchical oppression within antithetical pairings, he observes that Blackness is a construction created to contrast Whiteness. By his own account, Uzochukwu tends to conceive of “race as a construct, not a monolithic concept”, arguing convincingly that “you get to a point where race doesn’t really exist”.

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