Sory Sanlé: Volta Photo 1965-85 / Reviewed by Ellie Howard / 02.10.17
A celebrated portraitist in Burkina Faso, Sory Sanlé became the proud proprietor of ‘Volta Photo’ in 1960, the year Republique de Haute-Volta – known today as Burkina Faso – won its independence from French colonial rule. His monochrome squared snapshots of the youth bore witness to the Voltaic “Belle Époque”. The dynamic two decades that arose with the country’s emancipation and ended with Thomas Sankara’s 1983 election, when the revolutionary leader imposed sanctions upon musicians concert sales and curfews upon cities, curtailing an exciting musical period in the country’s history.
In “Le Vendeur Sénégalais qui Fume”(1972), an urbane young man is photographed seated. The portrait frames certain elements: a flash pair of 70s metallic frames, an adopted cigarette protruding unnaturally, the misfit woollen overcoat from which a lottery ticket emerges hinting at future prosperity. All tokens intended to display success and urbanity. Within the studio, the nomadic Senegalese vendor tries on the suit of the suave mercantile Burkinabé, and finds its tailored to his liking. Yet while the Burkinabé youth wished to present a progressive front in their embrace of modernity, upholding tradition was equally enforced. In “Chasse-Spleen”, (1972) a defiant young Mossi woman poses in commemoration of her Djombolai ceremony. Although gripping her traditional fly-swatter, she does not relinquish her dark sunglasses. Her gaze is direct, acknowledging her adolescent pride in self and in her heritage. The image adeptly summarizes what Sanlé’s images encapsulate most eloquently – the dreaming, transitional stage of Burkinabé youth.
Sanlé’s studio provided ample stage for self-expression, with subjects presenting their idealized self. Although it’s worth noting, Sanlé is an accomplice in the photograph’s efficacy; the portrait reflects Sanlé’s vision as much the director sitter. This collaborative image would then have been displayed proudly or gifted, in what Tobias Wendl identifies as an act of ‘Future Remembrance’. A term that explains the choice of props and backgrounds. Cigarettes, records and a postcard of French Yé-yé star Eddy Mitchell are all used to illustrate the various subjects au courant status. The thickly-daubed airplane backdrop with a sitter jovially leaping upon the airstair, frequently reoccurs. For the youth, international travel was a much-desired goal but it was a reality for only a fortunate few. In allowing themselves to independently dream again – for their future selves but also the future of Burkina Faso – the youth adopted specific visual cues that all pointed to a renewed optimism in the country’s political stability and economy, sprouting in the wake of nearly 130 years of colonial rule.
Sanlé’s images are firmly rooted in the tradition of West African studio photography, so his work draws parallels with the Malian contingent: Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Although in reality, the similarities barely extend past a shared use of 6 x 6 camera equipment. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, photographic studios proved a lucrative business in the economic hotspots of West Africa and were frequented by the bourgeois, whose tastes reflected international trends. None of the above photographers realised themselves to be artists until later in their careers and unawares to what they were creating, kept their aspirations to themselves. For his part, Sanle is less concerned with upholding a romantic beauty as found in Keïta’s photography. Rather he documents the unfurling of youth culture, growing into a newfound collective identity.
A nation’s progeny is a reliable measure of its progress. In providing critical documentation of Burkina Faso’s young post-colonial identity in the wake of emancipation, Sanlé’s images coalesce to form a democratic snapshot of the country at a historic turning point. While the exhibition would have been fortified by including Sanlé’s documentation of Bobo Dioulasso’s music scene – a major element of the photographer’s oeuvre – it offers a stunning introduction to Sanlé’s work and the rich cultural history of this landlocked West African enclave.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Ellie Howard
Sory Sanlé: Volta Photo 1965-85 continues at Morton Hill Gallery, London until 27 October 2017.
© Sory Sanlé ‘Les Amoureux Yougou Yougou’ 1980
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