Rauschenberg Gallery focuses on photographers who saw Africa in original ways

Pieter Hugo, "The Hyena Men of Abuja, Nigeria," 2005, digital C-print, 68 by 68 inches

Photo by Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo, "The Hyena Men of Abuja, Nigeria," 2005, digital C-print, 68 by 68 inches

"I think a lot of artists are stepping away from stereotypes of African photography," Edison College gallery director Ron Bishop said recently. "It's really about the individual, and what he or she has to deal with in life," he continued, looking around the exhibition space at the faces depicted by 17 artists.

As Bishop pointed out, the show on view through Dec. 8 at Edison's Bob Rauschenberg Gallery in Fort Myers is mainly about portraiture, and it eschews both horrific genocidal images and sublime, romanticized visions of the African landscape. Drawn from the holdings of noted Miami collector Martin Margulies, the photographs confront cultural complications of all sorts across the vast continent.

Among the animals

Pieter Hugo's pictures from the series "The Hyena Men of Nigeria" portray people who practice an age-old way of making a living — hucksterism, with a bit of modern flair.

The Hyena Men are essentially a traveling medicine show. They move from place to place with their animals, using the creatures' tricks and antics to attract viewers, to whom they then market herbs and potions.

Pieter Hugo's "The Honorable Justice Unity Dow," 2005, Lambda print,  39.4 by 39.4 inches.

Photo by Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo's "The Honorable Justice Unity Dow," 2005, Lambda print, 39.4 by 39.4 inches.

Hugo traveled for a time with a family of Hyena Men that included a small girl who is shown in a large group portrait, sitting on the haunch of a hyena if it were the family dog. His artist statement about this body of work is available online. His description of how one member of the group negotiates a bus fare while all the others, human and animals, hide in the bushes to avoid scaring off the driver, is priceless.

The Hyena Men are dressed in a combination of native garb and American team jerseys. The monkeys, however, wear English soccer shirts — one proudly sporting "Beckham" on its back. The men's faces are composed and solemn, as are those of their simian companions.

"Their way of life is almost medieval, and they survive like this in the most oil-rich country in Africa," Hugo said in 2008.

A South African of Afrikaner descent, Hugo also trains his camera on the faces of people from whom others often look away. His "Look Aside" series lingers on the visages of the poor and visually impaired, whose faces are not easy to view. It is as if the lack of money, social support and medical care is directly imprinted on their furrowed, sun-blotched skin and rheumy eyes.

Two Malian photographers of an earlier generation, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé, also are featured in the show. The back wall of the college gallery has the air of an old-time portrait studio, with a selection of small, vintage family photos by Sidibé. These tiny, framed objects are accompanied by several larger, more recently printed images by both photographers.

Made decades ago, Keita's family portraits are frontal, sober and commemorative. Stalwart patriarchs are accompanied by women and children wearing their 'Sunday best' — an intriguing interplay of fabrics and ornament that is mostly, though not all, African in style. The hats on two "Republican guards on leave uniform" recall the headgear of Egyptian pharaohs.

Sidibé is known for his focus on the youth culture of Mali in the 1960s and '70s. He strayed into the streets and bars to capture young people partying, dancing and goofing around. His black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing wildly patterned bell-bottoms and a contrasting floral shirt presents an epic clash of fabrics.

Hidden treasures

Two small historical photographs that could easily be overlooked are touchstones of the exhibit, according to Bishop. The first is by George Rodger, a founding Magnum photographer who was born in 1908. His photograph, "The Champion of a Korongo Nuba Wrestling Match is Carried Shoulder High, Kordofan, Southern Sudan," 1949, was made on a Cairo-to-Capetown journey.

If you go

“Africa — Photographs and Video from the Martin Z. Margulies Collection”

Where: Bob Rauschenberg Gallery, Edison State College, 8099 College Parkway, Fort Myers.

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 8

Admission: Free

Information: 239-489-9313 or www.bobrauschenberggallery.com

The black-and-white image captures a large, muscular man, veins popping, astride the shoulders of a supporter.

"It represents a primitive element of Africa," Bishop said. The photograph was published in National Geographic magazine in 1951.

The other touchstone is Arnold Newman's 1958 portrait of Haile Selassie, who was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and a well-known international figure. Enthroned in Europeanized grandeur, Selassie looks a bit small amid the chandeliers, tasseled furniture and coffered ceilings. The room feels more like Versailles than Addis Ababa.

Between these two characters, you've got the raw and the cooked, to nab a phrase from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The poles of life experience between the tribal wrestler and the legendary leader seem unimaginably far apart, though they were near contemporaries in time.

Random findings

Elsewhere throughout the exhibit, powerful pictures abound.

Jackie Nickerson, born in Boston, offers large-scale color images of agricultural workers in Malawi and Zimbabwe. In her looming figures, Nickerson finds physical dignity and strength.

The pictures arose after Nickerson visited a friend whose family had a farm in Zimbabwe. She became interested in the workers, bought a truck and began driving around Southeast Africa, taking pictures after engaging people in conversation. Her process was casual and interactive.

In an interview that appeared in Sweden's "Soil" magazine in 2008, the photographer said that despite their sparse material existence, the people she encountered "didn't seem to let their circumstances crush their spirit. ... They have a very strong sense of who they are and where they come from."

Rebels pose at a base in the Duala district of Monrovia, Liberia, in this photo by Tim Hetherington. Archival pigment print, 33 by 33 inches.

Photo by Tim A Hetherington

Rebels pose at a base in the Duala district of Monrovia, Liberia, in this photo by Tim Hetherington. Archival pigment print, 33 by 33 inches.

Dutch fashion photographer Viviane Sassen avoids social commentary in favor of purely visual drama. Her photograph "Traveler" portrays a woman seen against a sun-blasted wall, her face covered in darkness. The picture is a study in shards of light, shadow and hyper-saturated color.

To Sassen, Africa is a place of dreamy mystery and tantalizing sights.

And the ironies

South African photographer David Goldblatt, who has been documenting his native country since the early 1960s, is represented by two thematically linked pictures. About a decade ago, he turned his viewfinder on a planned community, the Dainfern Golf Estate and Country Club on the outskirts of Johannesburg. His visual style is dry and precise.

An elevated sewer runs past the neighborhood, looking a bit like a Disney monorail train. Near Dainfern, in pointed contrast to its prosperity, is an "informal settlement" of ramshackle dwellings served by portable toilets. This area houses those who maintain the manicured shrubbery and Tuscan-style homes of the golf estate, with its promise of a safe, secure lifestyle inside electrified walls and well-guarded gates that make the security level of Florida's gated communities seem symbolic at best.

There's an old saying that one of the best reasons to travel is to see your own home freshly upon return. "Africa: Photographs and Video from the Martin Z. Margulies Collection" allows viewers to have that experience without the expense of an airplane ticket, via intelligent and well-crafted contemporary art.

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