There’s been a recent shift in Fine Art photography with African subject matter; instead of being wholly photos OF Africa by outside professionals, photographers FROM Africa have finally gotten their due. The most famous of these is Malick Sidibé, who worked in Mali from the 1960s onwards, documenting street life and capturing the fashions and moods of Mali in his portrait studio (Studio Malick). Included in his many portraits are a few props from his subject’s lives, which often meant small motorcycles and mopeds, with sharp-suited young men or whole families draped over their hard-earned mounts.
Congolese photographer Jean Depara (1928-97) had his first full retrospective at Maison Revue Noir in Paris, in 2012. Depara’s ouevre is similar to Sidibé, although his ‘Jean Whiskey Depara’ photo studio shots were less interesting than photographs of the world he preferred to inhabit; the happening nightclubs and bars of Leopoldville (later, Kinshasa). Depara bought a camera (an Adox 6cmx6cm) in 1950 to document his wedding, but he became enthralled with image-making, and the interaction of photographer and subject.
Leopoldville was named after nightmare King Leopold II of Belgium (his mother Louise Marie d’Orléans may be a distant relation of mine), who used the famous explorer Henry Stanley (the inspiration for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, and Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’) to lay claim to the Congo as his private property, brutalizing and killing millions of Congolese in the process of extracting valuable rubber. The Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence in 1960, and in 1966 Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa, after a local tribe who inhabited the area when Stanley established his settlement in 1881, as part of the Africanization process common in formerly colonized countries after liberation. [Only Brazzaville retains the name of a European founder – for more on that, read my article from Men’s File #4.]
Depara was in the thick of a cultural explosion in the mid-60s, as the country experienced an exhilarating wave of energy after independence. Kinshasa was musically the heart of Africa in the 60s, and Depara spent much of his time around the hot bands and night clubs, where his talents were noted by the famous musician Franco (Francois Makiadi Luambo), who needed an official photographer. This suited Depara, who by this time had honed his technique with the camera as an image-maker, and as a tool for seduction of women!
Jean Depara captured an era of curious integration of American culture as well, as local sapeurs (sharp dressers) sometimes wore cowboy outfits – the ‘Bills’ – and these make an interesting contrast with the work of Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger and his ‘Halbstarke’. Mods and cowboys, women in (or out of) gorgeous dresses, Vespas and mopeds, Depara gives us a glimpse of a very hip world we in ‘the rest of the world’ didn’t have a clue existed.
In the mid-1970s, as revolutions, coups, and communist takeovers swept Africa, Depara was offered a secure position as official photographer of the Congolese parliament, which he held until retirement in 1989. Uninterested in color photography, and due to the declining profitability of his genre, Depara hung up his camera afterwards, and lived a comfortable existence with his ‘villa and a convertible’. His work was published outside Congo only after his death in 1996, and is now appreciated by a global audience.