Anyone familiar with Brendan Bannon’s photojournalism from Africa knows the Buffalo native has been slowly capturing the continent’s complexity, often via pictures published in major newspapers. Those expecting more of Bannon’s dramatic subjects – including pirates and refugees – will be surprised to find subtler fare in “Nairobi: New Works,” on display at El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera, through which Bannon “challenges viewers to see beyond a single story of Africa,” according to a poster.
That Africa is more than its many stereotypes has itself become a stereotype, but viewers ought not be put off by the triteness of the mission statement – this is not really the point.
There are moments when Bannon, who will give an artist’s talk at 7 p.m. Aug. 23, challenges expectations. The image of children playing at a brightly colored water park, for example, and two pictures of a horse racing track scorn cliché. These are more than a respite from the constant stream of war, famine and poverty photos; they are the first sentences of the countless stories hinted at in the artistic statement.
Often his touch is lighter, and this grace is one of his finest qualities. “Prisoner’s Yoga Class, Women’s Maximum” first benefits from an unexpected subject. The photo – depicting only the mats and stretching legs – shows that the prison uniforms (long striped dresses) are woefully inappropriate for exercise. Because of Bannon’s adept framing, every viewer will feel something different.
In another excellent shot, the viewer sees a sign announcing a “Wonderful Photographic Site” above a green bluff, at an elevation of “8000 ft.” By putting the advertised photo op. in the background and the sign in front, Bannon occupies a double consciousness, capturing both the irony of Nairobi as he sees it and the endearing, intrepid guilelessness of Nairobi as the city wants itself to be seen.
First, though, the viewer’s eye will likely be drawn to the photos that are more visually striking. There is blinding yellow in a shot of a man standing outside a photography shop, and supersaturated candy blues and reds contrasted with a template of mud in a smaller photo of schoolchildren. “Construction Greenhouse” is deceptively a study in earth tones. Each is a delight to look at.
Bannon’s works using a blurred effect are among his best, and each example achieves something different. “National Television Control Room” is perfect, showing trails of after-images of screens and figures, a multiplicity of objective frames. “Nairobi Railway Station” is another favorite, in which shadowy figures evanesce into smoke trails and two signs read “Nairobi” and “Way Out.” Finally, “Acrobat Training” features the eponymous acrobats blurred to the point of abstraction, becoming stylized stick figures, or rather curve figures, representing the motion itself, reminiscent of Brancusi’s “Bird in Space.”
The best in this exhibit, the most adept union of execution and intent, is “Deaf Child.” Here a child, with fists raised, is pictured behind a scratched, blurred, semi-translucent partition. The effect is striking – the viewer cannot make out the child’s face, nor ascertain the child’s emotion or interest. We are crippled, perhaps even devastated. Bannon emphasizes without ever overbearing.
There are some strange choices of priority on the gallery’s part. A decent picture is front-and-center, while one that hangs off to the left, showing a man in an alley bathed in brilliant liquid neons, is not graced by any name card and no bigger than a paperback book. The whole begs to be displayed in grander proportions.
The exhibit represents a departure for the gallery, which is dedicated to work by minority artists on minority subjects. Nairobi natives in Nairobi are hardly minorities, even in a Buffalo gallery. This departure is welcome, for while acting aggressively in the name of diversity is laudable from a cultural and political standpoint, the micro effect is and always will be the same as art criticism from a hyper-theorized standpoint: aesthetically suffocating.
Bannon, by contrast, makes suggestions rather than statements, and uses all the colors of his palate – including color, of course, and to great effect – but also humor, irony, charm and elusiveness.
What: “Nairobi: New Works”
When: Through Aug. 30
Where: El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera, 91 Allen St.