A new photographic exhibition brings the joy and optimism of West Africa in the 70s to the British capital. 

The 1970s were an exciting time in West Africa.

Countries were gaining independence and people were embracing modern life. The future appeared limitless and there was optimism in the air. 

And nothing captures that optimism quite like the extraordinary portrait photos taken at the time.

The photos were taken by self-taught photographers in tiny photo studios across Burkina Faso, Mali and Benin using battered cameras that would have been discarded in the West.

The exotic backgrounds were hand-painted. Props like telephones, cassette players and even motorbikes gave a hint of modernity. And the suits and shades were chosen from a dressing-up basket in the corner of the studio.

‘Any young man could become a big somebody with a simple photo’, says Sanlé Sory, one of the most fêted photographers from that era.

Allo On Arrive, 1978 (Sanlé-Sory/David Hill Gallery)
(© Sanlé Sory/David Hill Gallery)
Les Jeunes Mélomanes, 1974 (Sanlé-Sory/David Hill Gallery)
(© Sanlé Sory/David Hill Gallery)
La-Timidité, 1978 (Sanlé-Sory/David Hill Gallery)
(© Sanlé Sory/David Hill Gallery)

These people are metropolitan, worldly, and cool, and they vibrate with excitement for a new future.”

The New Yorker
(© Rachidi Bissiriou/David Hill Gallery)
(© Rachidi Bissiriou/David Hill Gallery)
(© Rachidi Bissiriou/David Hill Gallery)

A new photographic exhibition called Tête-à-Têtes Part II celebrates the work of these often unheralded photographers.

It is second group exhibition of West African portraiture presented by the David Hill Gallery in West London and brings together the work of some of the region’s most influential and important photographers. Many of the images are previously unseen.

Sanlé Sory and Malick Sidibé’s photos capture the exuberance of young West Africans as they embrace new styles in fashion, music and dancing.

Rachidi Bissiriou’s are more understated. He photographed the villagers who came to his studio as he found them, in everyday clothing, whether traditional or informal.

Every single one of them, however, provides a unique insight into the culture and society of the time.

Tête-à-Têtes Part II runs until 30 July, 2021. For more details visit davidhillgallery.net

Main image: Les Gentlemen de Cocody, 1978 (© Sanlé Sory/David Hill Gallery)