Ananias Léki Dago: Being There Where Things Are Fragile

Ivorian photographer Ananias Léki Dago was born in 1970.  After a ten-year absence from his country following the Ivoirian crisis which forced him into exile in France, but which at the same time gave him the opportunity to experiment and travel at length in other African countries, he has finally returned to the Ivory Coast with a whole host of personal and collective projects. He has finally returned to the Ivory Coast with a whole host of personal and collective projects.

A major exhibition “Ananias Léki Dago, Afropolitain” was held at the Donwahi Foundation and Goethe Institute in Abidjan that was accompanied by public meetings and a workshop with young students, marking a time for reflection and taking stock of his twenty years of photographic practice. We asked Ananias Léki Dago some questions about one of the series that was exhibited, “Shebeen Blues.”

Q: First, a few words about your path. You studied at the Abidjan Art School, correct?

A: That’s right. I trained at the Abidjan Art School. My reflection on photography started there; as it was there that I was able to exchange with other people and friends studying in the school’s sculpture, painting and architecture studios. I met my friend the Ivorian sculptor Jems Koko Bi, for example. I quickly became interested in things other than just photography. I grew in this environment and it helped constitute my intellectual and artistic baggage. It’s precisely the kind of exchange and discussion that we are currently trying to instigate in the workshop I am running for young people.

Q: The title of the exhibition refers to you as an Afropolitan. Can you tell us more about that?

A: It’s a reflection developed by the art critic Franck-Hermann Ekra. The exhibition at the Donwahi Foundation focuses on three African cities that I explored from 2006 to 2012: Johannesburg, Nairobi and Bamako. It refers to both my nomadism, positioned in an urban African environment, and to the multiple identities of Africa’s towns.

Q: You worked in the shebeens in South Africa. I imagine that when you arrived in Johannesburg, there were a lot of subjects that could have potentially caught your eye. What made you choose to focus on these places?

A: I went to South Africa the first time in 2006, armed with my Leica. One day, Andrew Tshabangu, a South African photographer, took me round Soweto. Soweto is huge and after a while we were thirsty. So Andrew said to me: “I’m going to take you to a shebeen.” Until then, I had no idea what a shebeen was. We went in, it was in the backyard of a house, there were people sitting there and it struck me that the decrepit old walls were full of stories. Some people’s faces – people up to the eyeballs in alcohol – were incredibly marked. There was something beautiful about their features. I found the place very photogenic too. But in addition to what interested me visually, I was interested in the very heart of the question, “What, in actual fact, is a shebeen?” In the course of various discussions, I discovered that shebeens – a kind of chop bar – are places that the township dwellers invented because the black populations were not allowed to drink alcohol. As all humans need to let their hair down, they created these informal, underground places to get together and reflect on their condition. “Shebeen” is an Irish word for an illegal alcohol outlet. The alcohol was made at the time by the women, who were known as Shebeen Queens. People gathered together in the shebeens both to drink and relax behind the authorities’ back, but also to discuss their concerns, questions relating to their culture, society or politics. Indeed political figures and activists such as Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, but also writers and journalists, developed their thinking in the shebeens. They came there to redefine their cultural identity in terms of social and political issues. So the shebeens were a kind of recipient of the energy that led to the overthrow of the repressive apartheid regime. However, the flip-side of the coin is that a lot of people, who were completely frustrated, became dependent on alcohol. The shebeens thus destroyed a lot of black families in the townships.

I personally was interested in the post-apartheid shebeens, in seeing what had become of these historical places today. Today they are no longer illegal; everyone is allowed to drink alcohol. So, what would my appreciation be, as someone who is not part of this history? I called the book published in 2010 out of this long project “Shebeen Blues.” These photos convey what I felt when meeting the people who frequent them. The shebeens can be very noisy, but a feeling of solitude permeates my gaze. This was no doubt the state I was in when I went to discover these places.

Q: Is their political and cultural dimension of the apartheid era still alive and present in the shebeens today?

A: The conditions have changed, apartheid is over. When a context changes, elements change too. It’s not like in the past anymore. The political parties are official now, people can take part in politics, and the black populations can vote for candidates now. But the shebeens remain social places where people come to talk, drink, and have a good time.

Q: Looking at your images, it’s noticeable that the faces are often hidden, obscured in shadows, turned away, projected in shadows, and so forth. We only very rarely see fully-lit faces. Could you tell us more about this approach?

A: Specialists could probably deduct something about me from that! I don’t really know where it comes from, but when I point a camera, I’m in a game of hide-and-seek, of suggestion. My concern as a photographer isn’t to make images that people can recognize themselves in, but rather to capture moments. It’s no doubt what Simon Njami defines as states in which the cracks and fragilities of life force you to look extremely closely. And what, for his part, Franck-Hermann Ekra qualifies as an aesthetic of fragility. Being there where things are fragile, in the spaces in which people deal with their fragility, that often translates into faces that are partially covered, silhouettes …

That’s how I “face” the people I observe!

Q: Another recurrent trait of your photos is the presence of gaps, openings, frames within the frame, windows, reflections, etc., as if you were opening up yet more perspectives …

A: Indeed, my images are often layered, offering several possibilities of interpretation. I like carving up space, creating constructions in which I can introduce openings that allude, for example, to hope. I also oppose forms or insist on lines. It’s a language that follows a logic and tries to say more than what is seen at a first glance. You have to take the time to dissect each image, just as I take my time to create them. It’s a principal of framing that I have developed over time. It’s a thought-through disorder in which I organize several things at once. I try to say things subtly, to show things with delicacy.

Q: You worked on this subject for three years. You went to different shebeens each time, didn’t you?

A: Yes, I spent time in different places. Soweto is huge. I also went to shebeens in the City Business District of Johannesburg and in Alexandra.

Q: What was your work method?

A: I ask myself questions first of all before taking my camera to work on a subject. It would have felt like a violation to me to show up with my camera, sober, and to photograph people who are inebriated. That would have been unfair. So, what did I do? That’s where my approach isn’t journalistic; I take my time. I drank, seriously drank, with the people each time I went to a shebeen, and we talked and joked and swapped stories. It was only after this stage that I felt I could take out my camera and very discreetly take photos. People accepted me because I obtained the key from them that put us on an equal footing. I cannot be them, because I will never be them, but at least I had access to their space, to their intimacy. That enabled me to see them in the moments they appear in in the photos, in moments of calm, reflection, fragility, yet these deep fragilities reveal a certain force, a certain resistance on their part. If you take this woman’s expression, for example, her traits are harshly marked and speak volumes about her past. The decrepit, crumbling wall behind her also speaks volumes about the history of these places.

Q: I came across an interview in which you talked about your relationship with Leica. Could you expand on that?

A: It’s my tool of expression. I’m a Leica fan and what’s funny is it’s even a play on my name: Léki, Leica!

The three subjects that were on show at the Fondation Donwahi were taken with an M6. Indeed, when I was a bit younger, I swore I’d buy myself a Leica for my 30th birthday. When I turned 30, I couldn’t afford one, but I finally got one when I was 33. In other words, the age Christ was when he accomplished his mission. It’s symbolic!

It’s an excellent camera in terms of quality and very discreet. The Leica is a way of seeing, a philosophy, a school! Your relation to things is very different when you have a Leica in your hands compared to an SLR. I focus on the live; I am on the go with my subjects, and thus the Leica suits me perfectly. Its silence too, because discretion is important to me when I’m working. These aspects have led me to totally embrace this mythical camera. What’s more, it’s a magnificent object and once you’ve got it in your hands, you just want to take a picture, and another, and another!

Q: What are your upcoming projects?

A: Some other artist and I are thinking about a collective: “Le texte caché” (The Hidden Text). Our wish with this collective work is to write our own history, to impose our own aesthetic based on local preoccupations, in the aim of being heard elsewhere too. We are going through the thinking, organization and regrouping phase to forge a creative synergy that takes financial concerns into account too. In other words, the aim is also to see how we can generate funds and put together projects that will allow the artists to make a living. Then the next stage will be to translate that into concrete action.

We believe that it’s up to us to define ourselves first of all.

Thank you for your time, Ananias!

– Leica Internet Team

Read the interview in French here. Connect with Ananias on Facebook.

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