Blog / The Power of Mohamed Bah


By Sarah Stacke

This summer I traveled to Cape Town to investigate an aspect of the boundless relationship between South African photography and South African identity.   My project focused on the work of four photographers who made environmental portraiture during the Apartheid Era (1948-1994).  While completing this project, I became intrigued by the dynamic contemporary photographic scene that has developed in South Africa over the last decade and a half.  Photography made during apartheid was certainly dynamic in its own right, and although “it cannot be defined solely in terms of the political context, neither can it be separated from it.” [1]

As Martin Barnes[2] observes, “For the status of South African photography, it has been a timely coincidence that the post-apartheid period coincided with the rise to prominence, that began in the 1990s, of photography in the international contemporary art world.”[3] Pieter Hugo (b. 1976) is a young South African photographer whose work captivated the international art community in 2006 with a series of portraits entitled The Hyena & Other Men. This body of work captures a group of itinerant Nigerian street artists who perform with hyenas and baboons.  A large portion of Hugo’s imagery explores social groups on the peripheries of African societies.  He has photographed black South Africans with albinism, and families and individuals living in Mussina – a transient town on the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe – and has recently completed a project called Permanent Error, which depicts a colossal dump of obsolete technology on the outskirts of Accra, and the locals who cultivate bits of valuable material for resale.

One of Hugo’s photographs is currently on display at the Nasher Museum as part of the exhibition, “Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection.”  The image, made in 2006, pictures Mohamed Bah, a young Liberian wearing a second-hand Boy Scouts of America uniform.  The donated uniforms often arrive with the previous Scout’s badges and new badges are added with time.  Mohamed’s right shoulder carries a badge of the Liberian flag, a flag that is, not coincidentally, strikingly similar to the American one.  In the mid 1800s the region, with the help of the American Colonization Society, was colonized by freed African American slaves who subsequently founded the Republic of Liberia.  Mohamed’s uniform provides a haunting bridge between the past and the present.

When I look at Mohamed, serious and dapper in his Scout uniform, I hesitate to think of him as belonging to the outskirts of Liberian society.  In comparison to Hugo’s other work, the series of Boy Scouts in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, is quite subtle.  (Notably, Monrovia is named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.)  For me, the image of Mohamed communicates the unexpected existence of the Scout Movement – associated with a peaceful society – in a country recovering from two civil wars in less than two decades, the second of which ended in 2003.  Frequently mentioned in regard to this photograph is the expectation that the uniform is that of a child soldier.

Perhaps Mohamed Bah has been marginalized by the history of his country, whose turbulence dates back to its founding and the ensuing 133 years of rule by a small minority of Americo-Liberians.  But in this image, with his unflinching gaze, his straight shoulders, his khaki shirt covered in badges, a neckerchief pulled neatly together at his chest, Mohamed is empowered with individual agency and he expresses a value system that is dedicated to a peaceful society.

[1] Newbury, Darren.  Defiant Images Photography and Apartheid South Africa.  [Pretoria]:  Unisa, 2009.

[2] Senior Curator of Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum.

[3] Barnes, Martin.  Foreword.  Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography.   By Tamar Garb.   Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2011.

IMAGE: Pieter Hugo, Mohamed Bah, Monrovia, Liberia, 2006, II, 2006. Archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper. Edition 1 of 5. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection.

Sarah Stacke grew up in Edina, MN, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York, and Durham, North Carolina.  She began her career as an assistant to Burt Glinn of Magnum Photos.   Since her time with Glinn, Sarah’s career has expanded to include a variety of independent projects and freelance work.   This summer, Sarah traveled to Cape Town to investigate the relationship between photojournalism and South African nationalism.

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