12 May 2007

Meeting Angèle Etoundi Essamba

Picture by ©Mikael Jansson

I’ve always been fascinated by the human being. And my aim is to depict the human being the way I see him, and this is what I have wanted to immortalize. I could have chosen nature, but I have decided to focus on the human being, black people and black women.

We meet Angèle on the fourth floor in Kulturhuset where her pictures are to be exhibited. The images are already in place and I can’t help approaching one picture that has stayed in my mind ever since I first saw it. She tells me that it’s a self-portrait titled “Waterfalls”. There is a bright sunlight falling in front of the photographer’s own face. For the beholder it has a somewhat mythical expression. I see a woman looking down into a volcano finding strength from this window of the inner Earth.

Looking at her images we see objects such as masks, trees and a kalebas and how they relate to the black woman. Being part of the African culture and representing the photographer’s own cultural heritage – the items are important symbols to show in interaction, and in a dialogue with the depicted women.

Picture by ©Angèle Etoundi Essamba

Many of her pictures are showing black models against a black background. Two of them are taken against a white background. Asking her about her choice she says that she mainly has produced images taken against a black background.

-I prefer a background free from other elements because it lets me get into the essence of what I want to show my audience.

The black background and the mixing of black and white are central in her work. So is her portraying of the black, African woman.

I do have a strong need to show the strength, the awareness and the pride of the African women, something that is far from the exotic, oppressed and stereotypical image. I miss these images around me, so it became important for me to show them.

Angèle left Cameroon when she was only ten years old and then lived in Paris until she at the age of twenty settled down in Amsterdam. But although she has spent most of her lifetime in Europe her pictures are giving us the African perspective. At least at a first glance.

My main inspiration comes from my African heritage. Between the ages of 12-20 I wasn’t thinking about going to Africa. But then it hit me, I needed to go back. It has become very important to me. But when I am in Africa I miss Amsterdam, and the other way around. For me it is like living in between two worlds.

The reality of living in between two worlds is something she shares with many people in the big cities of Europe. Angèle Etoundi Essamba tells us about it in her own unique way.

Picture by Mikael Jansson

Among the influences she mentions African photographers Sedou Keita and Malik Sidibé from the 1950’s. -They were pioneers trying to show their culture and its people in their own way. In Africa at the moment there are male photographers emerging, but not many women. Fine art photography is something new in Africa, we have manifestations for example the biennale in Bamako but it’s hard.

It is important to me to develop my own way of thinking through fine art photography. And to show a young generation that it is possible and that you can make a living out of it.

When we discuss the style of photography she represents, she mentions the mise en scène as a central theme in her work.- All of my photographs are very carefully composed and symmetrically arranged, she says.

Angèle mentions Man Ray (he was a genius!) and Robert Mapplethorpe as two photographers that have inspired her throughout the years.

Asking about her relation to fashion photography we talk about the time when Alexy Brodovitch was the art director of Harpers Bazaar and hired photographers like Man Ray, Avedon, Brassai and Lisette Model:

- Fashion photography interests me. I think it has to do with the aesthetics and influences can be found in my work. And of course I love fashion.

Picture by © Angèle Etoundi Essamba

This is the photographer’s first exhibition in Stockholm, but she has exhibited extensively in Europe before. Apart from showing her work across the continent and the rest of the world she promotes herself through representation by galleries and through here own website

Her photo technique is traditional; she uses the analogue process and takes all her photos with small format cameras such as Minolta and Nikon. The copies have been made in the same lab for twenty years time.

The exhibition Pride and Strength opening today 12 May will be on all summer in Kulturhuset, Stockholm. Go and see it!

/Ulf Fågelhammar
(thank you Daniel Nordin for your assistance in realizing this interview)

Angèle was an invited guest on the F Blog on 26 April 2007