Hilary R. Whitham

The Past is a Foreign Country, which closed this past weekend, was French-Ivorian photographer François-Xavier Gbré’s first solo exhibition in the United States, held at Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. Comprised of twenty-three large digital prints, three smaller groups of twenty, fifteen, and ten images respectively, one large-scale print encompassing an entire wall of the gallery, and a single video work, the exhibition presents a sampling of Gbré’s nearly decade long artistic practice. Beautifully curated by Branden Wattenberg, Gbré’s vibrant photographs of people-less urban spaces from Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal and his hometown of Lille, France, pop off the walls, epitomizing the centuries-old idea of a picture as a window onto another world.

Yet the cumulative effect of the saturated colors, magnificent use of natural light, and striking staging of Gbré’s photographs offers us a world that, upon further reflection, could be deeply troubling. The edifices of Gbré’s Africa are dilapidated, pointing vaguely to not only recent violence in the region but also the legacies of colonialism. The juxtaposition of these sites with abandoned French factories suggests a hasty comparison between the post-industrial European landscape and that of post-colonial West Africa. Despite Wattenberg’s insistence that the fragmented architectural spaces in Gbré’s photographs “vibrate” with the socio-historical conditions of their locations, the photographs themselves remain silent, the details of their lives confined to the didactic materials presented in the installation and the small publication. This blurring of the historical and the contemporary, as well as the here and the there, can be understood in terms of Gbré’s own interest in the aesthetics of flux in the urban environment. “He resists strict chronological or geographical categories, instead allowing images to flow together through associative and structural impressions,” writes Wattenberg on the first page of his essay for the catalogue. Yet Gbré’s ostensibly free-flowing site-specific installations ultimately seem to reify the very effacing nature of colonialism and capitalism that he seeks to critique.


François-Xavier Gbré. Cité Espérance #2, Route de Bingerville, 2013. Reproduction courtesy of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College.


Cite Esperance #2 (2013) epitomizes the contradiction between the installation’s reliance on didactic information and the paradoxical centrality and irrelevancy of site specificity to the artist’s practice. The photograph, which serves as the signature image of The Past is a Foreign Country, is one of only two images in the exhibition depicting construction, rather than destruction. The wall label claims, “the slow moving wave of red mud is all there is to locate the construction site in West Africa,” while the artist reflects on the inappropriate deployment of European modern architecture in West Africa. Both curator and artist appear united in their critique of contemporary architecture that does not reflect West African vernacular traditions or climatic conditions. The alleged lack of “fit” between natural and built environment could easily be seen as parallel to the disconnect between Gbré’s style and his subject matter. Rather than drawing on the rich legacies of photography on the continent, Gbré’s photographs reflect his training as a commercial photographer in Europe and his interest in American artists such as Steven Shore, as eloquently outlined by Wattenberg in the catalogue.

Gbré’s immersive images of the built environments of Dakar, Bamako, Porto-Novo, and Abidjan leave little space (pun intended) for alternative readings of changes to the urban fabric, presenting a pessimistic – and partial – view. For example, Salle des pas perdus, Palais de Justice, Cap Manuel, Dakar, Senegal (2014) depicts one of the salons of the Palais de Justice in Senegal’s capital littered with broken furniture, fabric, and rubbish, all of it covered with a thick layer of nearly palpable gray dust. Yet this melancholic image of post-colonial failure does not tell the whole story of this building. As the label acknowledges, this same structure has been renovated for use as an exhibition space for the DakArt Biennial. Such perfunctory notes may not offset the effects of the tidal wave of images presenting a sampling of characteristically trite and conflicting ideas of Africa – a place of physical decay, a place of continual transition, a place stuck in time.


Installation view, The Past is a Foreign Country. Photo credit: Lisa Boughter. Image courest of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College.


Gbré’s photographs are not solely concerned with embodiment and historical residue, but also with the possibilities of repetition and variation. The prints from the “Traces” and “Mali Militari” series (2009 – 14) most successfully unite Gbré’s interest in seriality with his interest in how architecture functions as a locus of negotiation of identities. The final set of ten prints are not only clearly identifiable as spaces of government intervention, but also offer interesting formal plays between color, line, and shape in their arrangement, which the artist terms “constellations.” While the entire installation in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery could also be understood as one of these constellations, the arrangements of smaller photographs, given the small size of the gallery, enable the viewer to more readily grasp the tenor of Gbré’s overall artistic output.

In Le Piscine (2011), Gbré juxtaposes images of hands holding photos with photographic stills, accompanied by voices of Malian immigrants speaking. The video concludes with facts about the Olympic pool at Modibo Keita Stadium in Bamako, the subject of the photographs presented earlier in the film. The curator asserts the expansiveness of the project, one of the most successful works in the exhibition, as “reflecting the legacy of an historical moment manifest in the built environment.” Despite the geographic displacement of both the artist and his subjects, Le Piscine is not nostalgic, but rather concretizes the relationship between an embodied viewer and urban space the Gbré seeks the explore in his work.

The Past is a Foreign Country raises more questions than it answers about the intersections of aesthetics, architecture, experience, and identity. While in the installation at Haverford College Gbré seems unsuccessful in achieving his stated goal of challenging the fetishization of post-colonial and post-industrial landscapes, his photographs have an undeniable immediacy. Gbre’s images express an awareness of the way in which the chemical properties of photography reveal its unique relationship to reality – as a trace or revelation of life. Despite the narrow framing of Gbré’s lens on West Africa, his photographs speak more clearly when in dialogue with other artists living and working on the continent and from its diasporas, as evidenced by his participation in the recent 1:54 Art Fair that took place at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn this May and in The Lay of the Land, currently on view at the Walther Collection’s Project Space in Chelsea. Widening the depth of field to include Gbre’s contemporaries presents a more complex image of the artistic output of the African diaspora focused on identity, territory, and memory. Similarly to Leo Colston, the protagonist of L.P. Harvey’s 1953 novel The Go-Between whose opening line serves as the exhibition’s title, Gbré’s photographs are not solely neutral interlocutors but actors in their own right, driving the ever evolving action of the story of West Africa and its diasporas.

Feature Image: Installation view, The Past is a Foreign Country. Photo credit Lisa Boughter, courtesy of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College.

Hilary R. Whitham is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, earning her PhD in the history of art. She previously worked as the director of Amos Eno Gallery in New York City, and served as a graduate curatorial intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while earning her MA from the City University of New York. Her specialties include modern and contemporary art, the history of photography, and the historic arts of Africa and pre-Colonial Americas.