In 1973, photographer Eliot Elisofon donated his comprehensive collection of photographs and African art including over 700 works of art, 80,000 color slides, photographs and negatives, and 120,000 ft. of motion picture film and sound to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Now, 40 years later, the museum is celebrating Elisofon’s life and work with Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon. Drawing from the archives, the exhibit highlights selected works from Eliot’s travels through Africa in his quest to capture the life, art, and culture of the natives.
The exhibit, held in a relatively small space, begins with a nod to Elisofon’s career in Hollywood working as a photographer for Life magazine and as a color consultant for films such as the 1952 version of Moulin Rouge. More emphasis however was devoted to the photographer’s travels and documentation of Africa. A map of Africa shows the path taken by the artist as he traveled on the ground across the entire continent. As a devoted Africanist and artist, Elisofon naturally took great interest in the artisans and craftspeople of the regions he visited. He was known to commission works of art by the natives and document through photography and video the creation of the traditional objects. Amongst the photographs, a video plays showing a man creating a pendant through lost wax casting, an ancient technique used to make metal objects. Elisofon also documented blacksmiths, carvers, weavers, potters, embroiderers, and mat makers in action and collected their art.
To me, photography has been a challenge; to produce images that are meaningful but not dogmatic, to be artistic but not arty. It has served me as a vehicle to pay tribute to other arts: to photograph the sculpture of Africa and the temples of Egypt and India. It has also permitted me to experiment with color, a method developed principally in my own time, and to participate in its liberation from crass quasi-reality. Finally, photography has enriched my life. It has enabled me to travel … to almost every corner of the globe, using my camera as a magic carpet to see and study the meaning and beauty of civilizations and environments besides my own.
Popular Photography, 1962
In addition to his documentation of African culture and landscape, the exhibit includes some of Eliot’s other artistic endeavors such as his photographic portrait of Marcel Duchamp descending a staircase: a clever response to Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase. Also included is a watercolor painting that invokes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The influence of modernist painters shows through in his work, completing the circle of African influence, as many of the modernist painters took inspiration from African art.
To view the retrospective of Elisofon’s work, visit the National Museum of African Art. For more information on the exhibit and museum hours, head to their website: http://africa.si.edu.