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What do you envision when you think of Africa? Conflict, poverty, disease? Or perhaps tourist attractions like wild animal safaris and Mount Kilimanjaro? As an American with African roots, renowned international photographer Lou Jones took issue with the peddling of such skewed images by Western media. Sure, it makes breathtaking National Geographic specials and wins Pulitzers for ambitious photojournalists, but it leaves a gaping hole in our understanding of Africa’s thriving contemporary cultures. In an ongoing personal crusade to depict its full dimensionality, Lou Jones has spent over a decade visiting one African nation at a time and intensively photographing there for about a month. Having just returned from Burkina Faso, his tenth country, the School of Design at Mount Ida College in Newton, MA is presenting a retrospective solo exhibit of the panAfricaproject featuring over one hundred of Jones’ dynamic photographs through Sunday, April 16th, 2017.
From the captains of industry to local artisans, from physicians to dance troupes and teachers to students, Jones turns his lens on the everyday people who are the engines of society. With an adroit sense of timing for “decisive moments”, Jones captures the unique rhythm of each culture through its citizens. Drawing us into scenes with dynamic framing and vibrant colors, he makes us care with his focus on human interaction. Exploding the Western stereotypes of Africa, Jones reveals the rich fabric of its cultures with disarming personal narratives. To say his approach is fresh and engaging is a gross understatement.
With such an upbeat slant, could Jones’ photographs be considered just a different form of propaganda? Perhaps, but in altering Western notions of Africans as warring, diseased and impoverished people who inhabit a vast undeveloped terrain, Jones is attempting to balance the scales of past and current misrepresentation. In the panel discussion at the opening reception of Jones’ show on March 22nd, 2017, I learned his mission has some surprising consequences. According to Barry Gaither (Director and Curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and Adjunct Curator for African American Art at the MFA, Boston) when African challenges are seen by the West as dire and unsolvable, outsiders become discouraged and tend to turn away. But when stories of thriving African cultures are disseminated, it bestows a sense of pride on those who share African roots all over the world. In the 1960s, it stoked the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the US and continues to positively influence such efforts as “Black Lives Matter” today. But Jones’ photographs succeed on an even more universal level, tapping into shared human experiences and emotions across race and demography.
Jones’ ongoing quest to visit each of Africa’s 54 countries is born of the desire to portray the variety and complexity of its multi-faceted societies. In the panel discussion, Jones commented that in the ten countries he’s visited so far, he’s had to undergo a different cultural immersion each time, adapting his travel and shooting style to local customs. For example, he was absolutely amazed at how differently those in Burkina Faso regard directions and distances from city to city, relying on practical road names and duration of travel rather than Western-style maps. Both Jones and Gaither said that when they visit Africa, their identity as Americans trumps their heritage – in the eyes of Africans, they are Westerners. But Jones says he’s not out to trace his roots or find a sense of belonging in Africa. He fervently aims to set a record straight, “celebrating the progress, development, human potential and enormous contributions to the world” by portraying advanced, 21st century African nations. Through his photographs of their industrious and proud inhabitants, Lou Jones is employing his own great gift, “the universal currency of photography”, to bestow another.
Co–curated by Mount Ida College faculty Jim Fitts, Alison Poor-Donohue and Brian Wilson, and sponsored by Panopticon Gallery, the panAfricaproject will be on view at the School of Design through April 16th, 2017. For more information, go to: http://www.mountida.edu/mount-ida-in-the-news/the-panafricaproject/
To learn more about Lou Jones’ panAfricaproject, go to: http://www.panafricaproject.org/
Feature Image: “Secondary School, Moduli, Tanzania, 2014” (Detail) from the panAfricaproject by Lou Jones (courtesy of the artist).