Dec 21, 2022

You Look Beautiful Like That

The AGO exhibition pays homage to the history of photography in Africa from the 1860s to the 1980s.

A photograph of a couple in a living room by Paul Kodjo

Paul Kodjo, Untitled, 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Overall: 50 x 40 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. © Estate of Paul Kodjo, courtesy Les Rencontres du Sud. 2019/2325.

'I kany¨ tan’—a Malian phrase which, in English, translates to ‘you look beautiful like that’. Seydou Keïta—prolific Bamako-born photographer, credited with popularizing it—once sagely remarked, “[As] a photographer … you try to obtain the best pose, the most advantageous profile because photography is an art.”

You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa—an exhibition at the AGO on view until June 11, 2023—traces the development of African studio photography from the 1860s to the mid-1980s. Curated by Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, the exhibition showcases photographs drawn from the AGO Collection by the pioneer Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, the Ivorian photographer Paul Kodjo and others. 

You Look Beautiful Like That invites viewers to explore the invaluable contributions local African photographers made to the unfolding history of the medium across the African continent. By the 1950s and onwards, African studio photographers like Michel Kameni, Sidibé, Keïta and Kodjo had begun experimenting with lighting and composition techniques, resulting in flattering portraits of their subjects. It was a time of transition, a post-independence era in Western and Central African nations and these images carried with them an air of optimism. This exhibition centres on the close collaboration between photographers and African clients in the creation of their likenesses. 

A photograph of a woman beside a pine tree in a studio by Jacques Toussele

Jacques Toussele, Studio Portrait of a Woman in a Patterned Dress standing next to a Tree, 1970-80. Gelatin silver print. 8.8cm x 13.9cm. Private Collection.

Viewers will first encounter Kodjo’s cinematic compositions with a pair of photographs from his “Roman-Photo'' series, in which the sitters, complemented by dramatic lighting, striking backgrounds and emotional encounters, highlight the photographer’s background in film. 

Black and white photograph of three people standing in a circle by Paul Kodjo

Paul Kodjo, Untitled, 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Overall: 50 x 40 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. Estate of Paul Kodjo. Courtesy Les Rencontres du Sud. 2019/2326.

Throughout the main exhibition space, works by Sidibé, Keïta, Cameroonian Jacques Tousselé and others present masterful portraits of groups and individuals in a range of studio settings. Using repetitive props, poses and inventive backdrops, each photographer’s unique style and practice underscores the endless possibilities of commercial studio portraiture. These images are placed in conversation with early examples of studio photography dating to the 19th century, showcasing the development and ongoing cultural significance of such photographic practices in West and Central Africa. 

An image of a groom and a bride by an unknown photographer

Unknown photographer. Wedding Portrait from Album of Adults and Children Posing in Their Local Costumes, Nigeria, Africa, 1950s, 18 July 1951. Gelatin silver print, album: 24.3cm x 15.4cm x 2.2cm. Private Collection

Unlike Keïta’s signature layered graphic patterns of clothing against vivid backdrops, assorted props and a panoply of dynamic gestures, Kameni kept his studio approach simple: a plain backdrop and black-and-white tiled floor. Sidibé’s studio set-up was somewhere in between and ever-evolving. Drawing inspiration from these decorative and compositional elements, the interior gallery is animated by black-and-white checkered flooring and a striped motif, magnifying the studio effect for viewers. 

A photograph of a child beside a small pine tree by Michel Kameni

Michel Kameni, Studio Portrait of a Child with a Small Tree, 1960-1980. Gelatin silver print. 8.5cm x 12.5cm. Private Collection.

 You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa is on view at the AGO until June 11, 2023, in the Murray Frum Gallery (gallery 249) on Level 2 of the AGO. 


Read Foyer

Subscribe to our newsletter for art and culture stories delivered to your inbox.