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Concordia photography student Mallory Lowe Mpoka is exhibiting at the Art Gallery of Ontario

The artist combines diasporic and personal histories as part of the AGO exhibit Re-Mixing African Photography
October 19, 2023
Photos from Mallory Lowe Mpoka's "Self-Portrait Project" (2020) and "The Matriarch (Alter-Egos)" (2023).
Photos from Mallory Lowe Mpoka's "Self-Portrait Project" (2020) and "The Matriarch (Alter-Egos)" (2023). Courtesy of the artist © Mallory Lowe Mpoka.

The work of Mallory Lowe Mpoka, a multidisciplinary artist and undergraduate student in photograpy at Concordia, is on display in a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The AGO is one of the largest art museums in North America.

The exhibition, Re-Mixing African Photography, showcases the visionary photo-based work of three contemporary African artists: Kelani Abass, Abraham Oghobase and Mpoka. The artists reimagine self-portraiture in West and Central Africa, each infusing the tradition with their distinctive flair.

A unique lens on multifaceted identities

Hailing from Montreal, Mallory Lowe Mpoka is a queer artist with Cameroonian-Belgian roots. Working between Montreal and Douala, Cameroon, Mpoka connects diasporic narratives and personal histories via self-portraiture.

Her photographs blur geographical and cultural boundaries to cast a spotlight on the intricate facets of her identity.

Mpoka takes an introspective, experimental and thought-provoking approach in her exhibited works. Family photographs, archival records and multimedia creations invite visitors to contemplate identity, belonging and representation.

“I was born in Montreal but I grew up travelling often: to Cameroon, where my father was born, and to Belgium, where my mother is from. So, as a young kid, family albums were very important in shaping my self-identity,” she explains.

Mpoka became acquainted with the power of visual documentation and photography at a young age, working in a dark room as of age 15. She mentions that her early exposure to family albums inspired her deep connection to photography.

Later, she began to explore the meaning of photo-objects in diasporas and the role of self-portraiture in self-identification, as well as colonial postcards.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, my father gave me two photographs of him from the ’60s. It was a time when there was a strong aim to reshape or regain control of the African continent’s visual narrative, which had been strongly impacted by colonialism,” Mpoka shares.

“By 1960, 17 African nations had become independent. In the years that followed, photographic studios sprang up across the continent, documenting how each country embraced its new liberation. Several photographers and pioneers, such as Felicia Ansah Abban, Samuel Fosso, Malick Sidibé and Mama Casset, chronicled life and the people around them throughout this period of creativity and rapid development,” she says.

“These black-and-white photographs had theatrical backdrops and other mise-en-scène elements, such as people playing with costumes, and playing with identity too, in a way.”

Mpoka’s photographs not only reflect on her self-identity but also identity in general. Past and present representations, as well as queer representations, all feature in her work.

She also notes the absence of documented work by women image-makers among the pioneers of African photography. This omission inspired her — in the confines of her room during the pandemic — to turn the camera toward herself.

When she was contacted by Julie Crooks, AGO curator of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, Mpoka says she felt like it was a full-circle moment. She learned she would be exhibiting alongside one of her inspirations, fellow artist Abraham Onoriode Oghobase. Oghobase is a Nigerian visual artist living in Toronto.

Mpoka had previously encountered his work at the African Biennale of Photography (Rencontres de Bamako) in Mali, where they had both exhibited in 2022.

Mpoka says she is happy and honoured to be part of this trio, whose works will be “speaking to each other” at the gallery.

Exploring various mediums and levels of depth

Though her work is multifaceted and interdisciplinary, Mpoka emphasizes that photographs always spark each new project. Over the last three years, she has ventured into experimenting with various mediums, such as textile dyeing with natural pigments, clay and screen printing.

Notably, she explored textiles in a course with Aaron McIntosh, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Studio Arts.

“In a way, this experimentation is reflecting the complexities of my heritage. Using multiple layers of textures and materials enables me to reach different levels of depth,” Mpoka notes.

She is currently working on a solo show, Unravelled Threads and Indigo Tales, which encompasses textiles, traditional weaving, clay and photography. Mpoka’s research will focus on the historical relationships between traditional African indigo-dyed textiles and the extensive use and extraction of indigo dye in Europe and America from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Additionally, she is preparing for a group exhibition curated by Sarah Edo. The exhibition will feature a red clay series exploring liminal spaces and mangrove forests from sociopolitical and ecological perspectives. The work is set to be showcased at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto from January to May 2024.

“I am thankful to thank Julie Crooks, Emilie Croning, assistant curator of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora at the AGO, and the whole AGO team for their trust and guidance, as well as Farnoosh Talee, founder of the Next Contemporary Gallery,” Mpoka says. “They all made this possible.”

Re-Mixing African Photography invites viewers into an immersive journey through identity exploration, culture and history, all visible through the lenses of three unique artists. The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition runs until January 7, 2024.

Find out more about Mallory Lowe Mpoka’s work.

Learn more about Concordia's Department of Studio Arts.


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