In Conversation with Angèle Etoundi Essamba: A Journey Through Black & White

In the vibrant world of contemporary art, few voices resonate as powerfully as that of Angèle Etoundi Essamba. I had the distinct privilege of delving into the artistic mind behind ‘Africanesse’—a striking exhibition showcasing a collection of vintage silver gelatin prints that elegantly capture the essence of modern African women. Through this exclusive interview, we explore the depths of Essamba’s twenty-year journey in celebrating black women, her defiance against stereotypes, and her profound contributions to the narrative of Black women in art. As her works find their way into esteemed collections like MoMA and The Boca Raton Museum of Art, Essamba stands not just as an artist but as a beacon of inspiration and empowerment. Join us as we unravel the symbolism, challenges, and aspirations woven into the fabric of ‘Africanesse’, a testament to the cultural identity, ecological narratives, and empowerment of women.

Christopher Okereke-Cox Your exhibition, ‘Africanesse,’ features a collection of vintage silver gelatin prints that reflect on the cultural identities of modern African women. Could you share the inspiration behind this series and the message you aim to convey through your work?

Angèle Etoundi Essamba The vintage silver gelatin prints featured in “Africanesse” span a work period of twenty years of celebrating black women. I made my first prints in 1985 and the last ones in 2006, before I switched to digital. “Africanesse” highlights topics which are dear to me and are recurrent in my work, such as identity & alterity, cultural heritage, and boundaries.

Reflecting on myself as a black woman, I naturally centre black women in my work. They are an inexhaustible source of inspiration and I have never tired of celebrating them in my corpus. I also found that I was regularly encountering stereotypes, particularly in visual landscapes, which confined the black woman to certain roles, often defined by poverty, dependance, passivity, submission and exoticism… I missed images which I could identify with, and this provoked a strong need to capture the black woman through my own lens.

Throughout my work, I therefore challenge these clichés by showing dignified women who stand for who they are: defiant and fierce. I show them in another light and through photographs with a universal resonance which I and others can identify with. 

Africanesse: the UK’s first solo exhibition of renowned Cameroonian artist Angèle Etoundi Essamba at the Doyle Wham gallery in London. Photo by Michael Walter/Troika

Christopher Your works have recently entered collections like MoMA and The Boca Raton Museum of Art. How do you see this recognition impacting the narrative surrounding Black women in art?

Angèle  The last year was one of consecration, filled with milestones as my work entered major public collections such as MoMA, the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Fitchburg Museum of Art and the Møller Collection in Norway.

It means so much to have my photographs in institutional collections. As artists, we all want to be recognized for the quality of our work above all, and the fact that MoMA saw the importance and the value of the vintage prints is a huge moment of recognition by one of the most prestigious museums in the world. 

Beyond this, it has a wide positive impact by enabling a larger audience to experience my work, and it opens new doors. I hope that this important acquisition might serve as an inspiration for the younger generations of African and women artists, who I strongly encourage and to whom I want to say: keep it up and believe in yourself.

Christopher In ‘Africanesse,’ you’ve incorporated elements like traditional headwear, jewelry, and body paint into your portraits, challenging stereotypes of Black women. Can you elaborate on the significance of these elements in your work and how they contribute to the overall message of your exhibition?

Angèle  “Africanesse” draws on multiple experiences, real and imaginary, to create a dialogue between memories of the past, present and future. This gaze alongside fragments of life are captured and rendered in various states, telling both my individual but also a collective story of women from Africa and its diaspora.

I use rich symbolism and imagery to celebrate Africa’s unique cultural richness and diversity to give a new narrative of the continent, too often associated with wars, epidemics and famines. My portraits celebrate key symbols of maternity, alterity and identity to promote values of communion, equality and solidarity between humans. They express inner beauty, pride, strength and awareness. Through this work, I aim to inspire hope and change perceptions about race and identity.

Christopher Your vintage prints from this exhibition are the last in your possession, adding to their rarity. Can you share any memorable moments or challenges you faced during the process of developing these works, and what makes them particularly special to you as an artist?

Angèle  Ooh, yes! These hand-developed prints are very special to me and handling them again takes me back almost 40 years back to a very intensive period of my practice. It was such a laborious, almost obsessive process that I remember it as if it were yesterday.

After graduating from the Amsterdam School of Photography, I felt compelled to explore the mystery of black and white photography more deeply, leading me to create my first darkroom in a storage unit I converted myself in the mid 80’s. Then, I became engrossed in my darkroom practice for the next twenty years, spending weeks at a time on the printing of each artwork, from preparing the baths, to choosing the right papers, then making tests, revealing, stopping, fixing, rinsing, and drying each print in turn. Finally, the magical and joyful moment was when, after many tests, I would see the perfect photograph arise from the bath. 

In 2006, my darkroom era came to an end and I transitioned to digital photography. So today, each lovingly printed vintage photograph from that period is special and reflects the formation of an intimate relationship with my craft. When Doyle Wham contacted me a few years ago after seeing how unique these hand-developed photos are, and asked to represent that body of work, I was happy and moved.

Christopher The themes in ‘Africanesse’ encompass cultural identity, ecological narratives, and the empowerment of women. How do you hope viewers engage with these themes when experiencing your exhibition, and what conversations or emotions do you aim to evoke through your art?

Angèle  While these are themes I embraced almost forty years ago, they are more than ever in the news today and they still inspire me because they are at the heart of our contemporary human concerns.

In my experience, each work awakes a different emotion depending on each viewer, and I embrace that. I would like to invite the audience to look at the exhibition in a very open way, and to dazzle in that particular moment with the artwork that can move you, cause you to marvel, question, and lift you up. As long as it remains a moment of encounter.