A beautiful exhibit opened the other day at the Ex-aduana museum in Juarez. New Jersey photographer Joe Grant, who has photographed for Essence among other magazines and who studied with James Vanderzee of Harlem Renaissance fame here has trained his lens on Africa.
In his artist statements, he talks of feeling, as an African American, a kinship with people he met in his travels all over the continent even though he had very little prior knowledge of their lives. His journey from Kenya to Mali, seems to be a connecting and discovering “roots” sort of journey. This can sometimes be a recipe for disaster, but by and large the photos he shows here are so beautiful that one can ignore some relatively minor quibbles.
There is a little something of an Edward Curtis sensibility to these photos in which we somehow have a sense of the exotic-the other. I don’t think that was necessarily the intention, and it might simply be my own reaction, but there is always this possibility when photographing people who superficially seem to be very different.
The photos seemed to have been divided into different series like: Beauty, Shoulders, Day After Day, etc., and one does get a sense of daily life in these small villages. For anyone who has lived or visited Northern Mew Mexico, much of the scenery and colors seem strangely familiar-adobe, bright blue sky, etc.
Grant was trying to make a personal connection, but the photos provide a great deal of opportunity for reflection not only on the beauty inherent in the faces of many of those photographed or of the scenery but on other matters as well. For instance, in looking at these people, who wear all sorts of bright colors and often lots of things around their neck, I couldn’t help wondering how drab they might find my own faded blue jeans and gray sweater; in looking at a couple at the beach, covered head to toe in fabric and jewelry to protect themselves from the burning sun, I couldn’t help wondering how they would view the average European or American who would be barely wearing anything in the same circumstances.
While there are some wonderful portraits, I found others a bit too dark to effectively discern- there seemed to be a difficulty in incorporating both the bright oranges and reds in the background and the faces. In some cases we have people photographed in shadow as representative perhaps rather than as individual. In other cases we have people of all ages standing together. There is a great photo of people lined up in front of a wall in which there is written Bob Marley, but more appealing are the photos of individuals, proud, human alive in front of their houses or going about their business photographed against a huge sky or bright adobe wall.
The show also contains a variety of masks and statues to add context and fullness to the show.
Countries photographed included everything from Kenya to Mali, from Namibia to South Africa, and there is a chart explaining location of the different tribes photographed. This is a fine show exploring a continent of which despite all sorts of news reports, we know far too little.-david sokolec