Exhibition: We Face Forward

“Art from West Africa Today”


I recently went to the “We Face Forward” exhibition in Manchester. The exhibition took place across several sites around Manchester over the summer. Covering both art and music, it aimed to explore and celebrate the city’s relationship with West Africa.

We Face Forward Exhibition Paper

I viewed photographs and other visual art in two museums, the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery. All work was by West African artists, which made a nice change as I am much more used to seeing work from Westerners visiting those countries. I was interested to see how the artists’ different viewpoints would be carried over in their work.

The photographs on display were almost entirely of a documentary style and provided a commentary or observation on life in West Africa. A mixture of work and home, struggles and survival, but throughout I found myself wondering what do the people featured do for fun?

The Manchester Art Gallery had a much higher quality selection of photographs in my opinion than the Whitworth, where the collection often seemed clichéd or spoiled by poor printing (in fairness the Whitworth is a smaller gallery and concentrates more on textiles).

What follows is a brief review of both galleries and some of the artists I found particularly interesting.

The Whitworth Art Gallery

I visited the Whitworth Gallery during a lunch break and I probably should’ve revisited it when I had a bit more time. In the first room of photographs, I found myself surrounded by large images. There were several panoramas, with other large photos and some videos, all showing markets and streets of Ghana. The images were intended to be viewed while walking around a cart acting as a market stall full of trinkets. It was quite an immersive experience and gave a real sense of what a busy day would be like. However, the photographs didn’t really tell me anything new and the large, low resolution print meant that I struggled to see the big picture but also couldn’t make out any of the smaller detail that I was left wanting to see.

Video of man on a bike by Em’kal Eyongakpa – I found this installation light-hearted and thought provoking. I started to question my perception of West Africans; how many of them wear suits to work, where do they go and what happens when they get home? However, the description next to it didn’t really match up to my interpretation of it.

Next up was a series of portraits by Nil Obodai, entitled ‘From The Edge of the Core’. They were predominantly in a square format and presented in plain, old wooden frames. They were good portraits, but I had trouble reading them or understanding their significance. With hindsight, I should have revisited these and spent longer looking at them.

Overall, I was left feeling like I need to learn a lot more about art and reading photographs to get the most out of such exhibitions.

Manchester Art Gallery

My earlier question about leisure activities was partly answered when I entered the Manchester Art Gallery and found steel drums being played. Nonetheless the exhibits themselves still concentrated on the home or work.

Nyaba Léon Ouedraogo,“The Hell of Copper” (more photos here)

This was by far my favourite exhibit, not least because it shows the other side of the industry that has been my work and hobby for so long. A series of high quality and striking photographs, which were very similar to the recent work of Pieter Hugo with his ‘Permanent Error’ series.

The first photograph I saw showed CRTs towering like skyscrapers in a waste dump. This set the tone for the rest of the set, where we were challenged to think about our relationship with the waste we produce and the consequences. This is the side we don’t think about enough in the West. This first image was contrasted with the image next to it, where a person looms over a burning monitor; showing a man conquering and destroying the thing that will probably, ultimately, kill him.

The remaining photos showed people working and living in the waste dump. They were shown using e-waste to make intricate hats reminiscent of traditional-style West-African head wear and construct boats to travel through the wasteland. Smoke creeping up from the distance, obvious hardship, yet also survival. The use of light and frequent low angles made the people in the images look strong and determined, rather than weak or broken.

I was left questioning the relationship between people and the objects in their environment. It seemed to me that the inhabitants were fighting back, evolving and changing to survive in an incredibly harsh environment. But, with the long term effects, hinted at in the photographs, are they winning or is the waste?

Nyani Quarmyne
A set of photographs showing coastal erosion. Questioning the nature of inside and outside space. Can a house that’s full of sand still be a home? Reminiscent of Lee Miller’s ‘Portrait of Space’.

Raphin Zounyekpe
Not all of the photographs were printed, many were shown on large LCD screens continually scrolling through images. In the case of Zounyekpe, the screen cycled through his images of bikes ridden down flooded streets and market places, showing the juxtaposition of Western and traditional cultures. There were photographs of a Tupperware box of pastries balanced on someone’s head, old-fashioned baskets of pineapples, and stall holders wearing and selling premiership t-shirts and jeans.

Charles Okereke
A dark set of photographs, that were backlit. Abstract images depicting waste by looking down into black, polluted water. The style reminded me of the museum abstracts from the graduate, Alison Hagger, in an earlier exhibition I visited.

George Osodi, “Oil Rich Niger Delta” (see also)

A set of powerful and well composed images. Interesting viewpoints used to compare and contrast the richness of oil and and the way of life it provides us, with those who live on the front line. Oil burning, wells scaring the landscape and surrounded by poverty. The liquid gold runs past and doesn’t touch those who have to live with the pipelines scaring their homeland.

A real sense of life, but whose life?

I’m currently reading ‘Photography, A Critical Introduction’ edited by Liz Wells [1], and in it, the author describes how photos are now being placed in isolation in museums and libraries as they’ve been become accepted as an art form of themselves, rather than their previous role in supporting writing and art. However, I think the mixed media here creates a richness and sense of environment that wouldn’t be possible with just photographs (however much I’d enjoy a room full of photos!).

After viewing the exhibition, I was left with a sense of strength and vibrancy. It was not depressing, despite the obvious hardships. This is contrasted with the work of Pieter Hugo (a photographer recommended by the tutor Jose Navarro, in a forum thread), whose work seems to view the workers in the waste dump as passive and weak. That said, there was no sense of enjoyment or of any leisure activities, just a struggle for life both at home and work.

Sadly, the exhibition has finished now, but it was well worth visiting. I’d like to find out more about the work of some of the artists, Ouedraogo and Pieter Hugo in particular. Next up, the Liverpool Biennial in a few weeks time!

[1] Photography: A Critical Introduction, Routledge (1997) . Edited by Liz Wells. Essay: Thinking about Photography by Derrick Price and Liz Wells.


  1. […] stunning. Huge, yet still incredibly detailed (so different from the photographs displayed in the previous exhibition I saw here). The large size to me represented the scale of the disaster and helped give the sense […]

  2. […] to see exhibitions at the Manchester Art Gallery, the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Photographic, Manchester Chinese Arts Centre, Liverpool […]

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