However we perceive these pictures today, many photographers of the time saw their practice as a trade rather than an art form, which meant they were often oblivious to what was happening in the medium outside their immediate community. “I wasn’t aware of any other photographers back then. I just saw photography as a way to earn some money and start a career,” says Sory, adding that people posed in whatever they wanted. Much of Sory’s work looks to us now like fashion photography, though it was never intended as such. “People felt free and proud, and this was expressed in their clothing and attitude,” adds Bissirou. “I sometimes helped them to pose, but the clothes are their own.”
Beyond studio photography, independence impacted many aspects of the cultural sphere across Africa. In 1966, Senegalese President Leopold Senghor held the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) in Dakar, the first modern event celebrating global black culture. It was an opportunity to commemorate the arts in newly independent African nations, and included more than 2,000 writers, artists and musicians from across Africa and the African diaspora. “The sophistication of the continent was shown through creativity in the arts,” says Checinska, adding that the “power of creativity to affect change” was apparent throughout the festival.
Some artists also used independence to question the practices of their country. The cover artwork by Lemi Gharioukwu for Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s 1989 album Beast of No Nation is displayed at the start of the exhibition. “Beasts of No Nation condemned the post-independence generation of lost politicians, lamenting the missed opportunities and broken lives,” writes historian Gus Casely-Hayford in the exhibition catalogue.
Kuti is widely considered one of the most influential musicians to emerge from post-independence Nigeria, and his music still impacts artists and political conversation today. “The album tapped into the wider cultural backdrop of the continent’s crippling frustrations and bitter disappointment with its politicians and business communities, but it also reflected the indefatigable energy of Africa’s creative sectors and their irrepressible drive to create beautiful things in the face of unimaginable challenges.”