The Art Gallery of Ontario includes Mallory Lowe Mpoka’s work in Re-Mixing African Photography.
Queer Cameroonian-Belgian artist and Concordia Studio Arts BFA student Mallory Lowe Mpoka is currently exhibiting at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto as part of a group exhibition titled Re-Mixing African Photography: Kelani Abass, Mallory Low Mpoka and Abraham Oghobase. The exhibition is situated in the inner gallery space of the Department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora. Established in 2020, the department seeks to redress the representation of both historic and contemporary African art through their programming and exhibitions.
Three artists draw from Western and Central African traditions of studio portraiture in order to critically examine the history of photography within broader conversations of the African diaspora. Mpoka’s work makes use of a variety of materials such as archival family photos and natural pigments in order to explore themes of home, heritage, belonging and connection.
The Self-Portrait Project (2020) is a pair of black and white photographs that feature two staged self-portraits of Mpoka standing with one leg resting on a stool. In both images, Mpoka holds a framed vintage photograph of her father close to her body—a gesture that speaks to her connection with her Bamileke heritage. The family portrait signifies the distance between past and present, where the commemoration of heritage is rooted in a sense of loss.
Her dynamic posture is both nonchalant and assertive. She engages the viewer and invites them into the image, but she does not directly return their gaze, for her eyes are obscured by dark sunglasses or the brim of a hat. Her stance creates an impactful exchange of looks between the subject and the audience. She offers a glimpse into her identity, but keeps a protective distance from the viewer. The portraits maintain that there is always a measure of opacity in agency; the artist reserves the right to carefully choose what she reveals.
Mpoka’s series What Lives Within Us is an experimental multimedia project that expands on this notion of memory and heritage by blending material and image. The series brings together found photographs from Mpoka’s family archives and craft techniques such as natural dye processes, collage and embroidery. Mpoka reworks the photographs using materials from her family’s sewing workshop in Douala, Cameroon. The threads she uses were hand-dyed with pigments from Cameroon’s highland soil. By sewing the thread directly onto the surface, she obscures and thus protects the identity of the subjects. This action is another assertion of privacy as she negotiates her sense of belonging.
Re-Mixing African Photography will be on view until January 7, 2024. Admission is free of charge for all Indigenous peoples, AGO members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under.