Crossing the void – Chapter 2

Urban spaces in West Africa, in particular cities such as Dakar, Abidjan, and Lagos, represent promising and at the same time challenging spaces, not only for inhabitants but also for those who would like to approach this space from a creative point of view. Much has been said about difficulties, slums, underdevelopment, infrastructures, insufficient services for the growing population and other issues that obstacle comfortable life. Not negating these issues – because they appear in the images – but opening up room to an expanded dimension of reality, leaving space for different and new narratives to emerge. Relying on what we see, seeing the invisible and the beautiful in everyday life is a way to look at the city from a different point of view. It can only be accessible through looking/watching and living the place through an evolving, intimate and meditative contemplation that opens up different forms of what is seen and how.

New ways of watching space could also bring to the fore the contradiction in stereotyping African urban spaces: using ‘non-canonical’ and non-stereotypical patterns for the representation of the city. Looking at an African place and seeing it as if it were not an African place and probably also representing it as if it were not an African place makes one think about the existing unwritten canon of how an African place can look like and how it can be represented. This unwritten canon is the bone of contention in this essay on the epistemic violence of the established imagination concerning African spaces.

Images of the city may be born from the will and necessity of the photographer to depict a detail, to frame it in a fixed manner, to immortalize a situation. Urban worlds are composed of continuous movement, of an errant/vagrant gaze and the multiplicity of details that it comes across. As Simon Njami writes,

« I believe that the “sense” of the city in Africa cannot be found in geometry or any conventional, verifiable logic or urban planning. The city here is not a physical entity with street names and signs, but an intangible phenomenon. »

Flash Afrique : photography from West Africa, Wien: Kunsthalle; Gottingen: Steidl, 2001

Through this vital relationship with the intangible, with the not always visible, the photographer advances and captures what is visible exclusively to his gaze. This relationship to the city is actually its practicing. “The African city develops only through use” writes Simon Njami. This is the concept introduced by Michel de Certeau in his seminal work ‘L’invention du quotidien’ where the French philosopher distinguishes between places and spaces. For Magee, a way of practicing the city, of living it, besides walking it, is photographing it. It transforms its places into spaces and vice versa and also into a text that can be read. The photographers establish an intimate relationship with the city, depicting it rather than its inhabitants.

This exclusion of direct human presence makes his work even more acute and human-centered. Looking at the familiar details that a city dweller would immediately recognize allows for the creation of a moment of estrangement that shows the familiar from a different angle. The contemplation of the photo then brings back pieces of the puzzle and a new gaze on the routine arises. This gaze is directed at ‘small’ or insignificant pieces of reality that are often overlooked. Magee calls this form of relationship with place elective belonging, expressing

« […] an individual’s sense of belonging to a community: one may be born into that community, or one may move to it, but in either case, when one chooses to stay, one elects to belong.»

Carol Magee, Spatial Stories: Photographic Practices and Urban Belonging: Africa Today, Vol. 54, No. 2, Visual Experience in Urban Africa (Winter, 2007)

This understanding of the sense of belonging as a specific form of representation, as an intimate sense of the city is also an instrument that could help to overcome strictly binary national / ethnic / racial forms of belonging and non-belonging. This form of contemplation and practicing the city also becomes a creative instrument, a photographic technique. It opens up to forms of creative processes that go beyond the foreigner’s gaze.

« Elective belonging entails having a ‘sense of spatial attachment, social position, and forms of connectivity to other places’; it has to do with how one expresses ideas about place and position to one’s self and others. »


Different photographers, different people, different life histories make up different ways of connecting and belonging to (their) cities. This aspect is one of the crucial elements of evolving the gaze on a place, of relating to it, thinking about it, of representing it as a final stage of this complex relationship.

I see this relationship with the city as an example of the evolving gaze on African urban environments, opening up new ways of seeing, as well as productive representational models that disentangle from the epistemic violence of the external gaze, opening and entering new depths of the place that is practiced. Each artist obviously has a personal approach and mode of exploration that depends on personal history, on their background, on their interest of seeing something specific. In the case of my personal photographic work, I practice the city by walking through it, living the places, watching and familiarizing myself with them. Through the continuous return and observation of the same places, I pick out elements that feed my imagination and understanding of the city.

It is strictly related to the perception of ‘normality’ of a place and of its aesthetic representation as a ‘normal’ place. While ‘normality’ should not be the objective of the work, it is mainly the epistemological point of departure that negates violence and feeds creative approaches to the place. In this case ‘normality’ becomes and important step in the underpinning reflection on forms of representation of African urban environments. This is at times a conscious and an intuitive feeling of the need for non-violent, aesthetic imagery that would disentangle representations of Africa from documentary failure.

The representation of Africa is a case of epistemic violence that has long been under the scrutiny of scholars, writers and artists. The capacity of the evolving gaze to disentangle from the epistemic violence of images is a promising artistic strategy. It offers an understanding of possible passages from an intimate relationship to a place through its aesthetic representation.

This approach opens up avenues for dealing with ‘what we see’ in an African metropolis, defeating developmentalist and simplistic ways of looking at a ‘low income country’, introducing a personal side of the visual research where a writer and/or photographer has an intimate relationship and a link with the place that is photographed. Thanks to this intimate relationship, a visual regime is established that embodies multiple ways of seeing.

Central to this working practice is the sense of belonging to a place that becomes both key and instrument to overcoming preconceptions and stereotypes. It allows one to travel from the ‘normality’ of an anti-photogenic gaze to unfixing ideas and images. This aesthetic turn can actually be read as a conscious distancing from the epistemic violence of images denouncing suffering, violence or the praising of exotic beauty, to including African landscapes and places within the orbit of ‘normal’ and everyday life.

The intuitive and contemplative work of many photographers embodies various forms of investigating facets pertaining to the city seen beyond the visible. At the same time, the city remains a lived place and a place of living. Contemplation of the city is both in thoughtful relation with the self and with the surrounding environment.

Multiple ways of seeing transmute into a different form of representation, a crucial process for the continent, both at the aesthetic and conceptual levels. This type of work can be defined as a form of inventing Africa through intrinsically non-violent artistic practices.

Katia Golovko is a writer, researcher and photographer living in Dakar, Moscow and Bologna. She has published texts on migration, literacy and education in West Africa and on contemporary art. She is interested in investigating complexity of the West African context and gaining its major understanding through text and image.

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