Review: Three photographers use portraits to tell a story of place at Atlanta gallery

One Atlanta and two African artists share a remarkable affinity for blending the past and present in their work.

The multitalented local artist Shanequa Gay is paired with two photographers from Burkina Faso, Sanlé Sory and Saïdou Dicko at Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta.

I don’t think it’s just local pride to say that Gay more than holds her own next to two esteemed African photographers.

Though they hail from different sides of the world, all three photographers create portraits of Africans and African Americans that contain an evocative, proud expression of a local sensibility — the landscapes, clothing, mannerisms and cultural touchstones that define the places where these people live.

Their subject is a cultural collage: the creative ways people who may not have a lot in the material sense nevertheless peacock and strut and endow their lives with a sense of style and spirit. Whether it’s the rich Black culture that gives Atlanta its heart and soul in Gay’s work or the sartorial charms of nightclubbing teenagers living in ‘70s-era Burkina Faso, these photographers convey the spirit of a place via its citizens.

A former sheepherder turned self-taught photographer now living in Paris, Saïdou Dicko’s work in “The Shadowed People” can evoke elements of Laylah Ali and Bill Traylor. Dicko colors in his human subjects, both children and adults, with black paint, erasing details of hair, skin tone and expression. His series of anti-portraits remove individual traits and nuances in order to create universal figures that stand in for the circumstance of African identity. He places his figures against buzzing blue cement walls or against the warm, festive patterns of elaborate fabrics that can recall the way Kehinde Wiley lovingly shrouds his subjects in bright color and pattern. Dicko uses his blank figures to critique the way the Africans he shoots in Paris or Burkina Faso are made into abstractions, almost invisible.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While Dicko’s work is contemporary, Sanlé Sory’s black and white photos, taken in Burkino Faso’s club scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, feel like a thrilling patchwork of past and present. The photographs capture the eternal condition of being young and cool, and the more particular historical moment of a country breaking away from French colonial rule. Sory photographs teens — the mods and teddy boys, hipsters and goths of their time — adopting an armature of cool in starched and ironed streetwear, cigarettes dangling from lips or straddling prop motorcycles. Sory’s subjects pose in front of painted backdrops in what feels like aspirational film stills — the stories they’d like to tell about their lives.

Witness the young woman in “Chasse-Spleen” (which translates to “chase away the blues”) from 1972. Standing in what looks like a lacy white bra, a richly patterned kente cloth skirt and a “Mod Squad” pair of shades, she serves Nina Simone-level confidence. It’s hard not to see her as a kind of collage of Africa and the West in her fashion bricolage of the village and the city, history and the future.

That same sense of affection defines Atlanta native Gay’s delirious hybrid photos printed on aluminum in “The Beautiful Tale of Atlannahland.” Gay’s cut-and-paste little girls dressed in pop culture headdresses and sprouting zebra legs embody an Atlanta of head-swimming collisions. It’s a landscape of “We Buy Houses” signs, the Pink Pig, peaches, Maynard Jackson, Hot Cheetos, gold chains, hair beads and Trappey’s hot sauce. Her crazy quilt characters embrace the now but with glancing references to Africa. It’s a joyous celebration of the distinct character of place that also makes Sory’s portraits sing.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

It therefore feels like a missed opportunity not to have made the striking similarities between Sory and Gay clearer with a closer pairing. Instead, like so many other local artists, Gay’s work has been consigned to the gallery’s more out-of-the-way viewing room. But she deserves some more serious, prominent real estate and an opportunity to be measured next to her peers.


“The Beautiful Tale of Atlannahland,” “Volta Photo” and “The Shadowed People”

Through Dec. 23. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, and by appointment. Free. Jackson Fine Art, 3115 East Shadowlawn Avenue, Atlanta. 404-233-3739,

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout