Sanlé Sory: Volta Photo

M+is pleased to present Volta Photo, an exhibition of black and white photographsby West African artist Sanlé Sory. The exhibition runs from January 11 through February 7, 2020, with an opening reception on Saturday, January 11 from 6 to 8 pm. This show, the artist’s first with the gallery, includes studio portraits from the 1960s-1980s, a stunning cross-section of the postcolonial culture of an economically challenged, but recently liberated country negotiating its local, regional and international identities.

Sanlé Sory’s portraits are key documents of the exuberant youth culture in Burkina Faso following the small West African nation’s independence from France. After learning to use a twin-lens Rolleiflex 6x6 camera and process prints, Sory opened his studio, Volta Photo, in 1960, the same year his country (then called Upper Volta) began its transition from remote colony to independent nation. He worked as a regional reporter, event photographer and record sleeve illustrator active in the city’s dynamic music scene. Most notably, however, Sory was one of Bobo-Dioulasso’s earliest and finest studio photographers.


A mingling of Fula, Malian and Voltaic youths—customers and loyal friends of Sory—populate the photographer’s inventive studio portraits. Teenagers and twenty-somethings playact as their favorite music icons, while others model modern fashions brought with them to the studio or show off their gym physiques. Some don costumes or hold props provided by Sory that appeal to their taste for the modern, such as Air Afrique flight bags, radios, telephones, lamps, record players and plastic guns. Loosely painted backdrops conceived by the artist feature scenes of leisure and modern life, such as a cityscape at night, a beachside promenade and an expansive airplane tarmac. “Anything,” Sory says, “to help people make the picture their own.”


Focusing on photography both as industry and aesthetic genre, Sory’s body of work demonstrates the medium’s unique place in the daily construction of Burkinabe identities and aspirations, economic development and the gradual urbanization of a young generation growing apart from rural society, while carrying over its rich traditions. Sory’s photographs provide a view from the ground of the shifting boundaries delineating local customs from mass culture, and self from an imagined community spread across borders by such means as radio, music recordings, film and photography itself. 


Sanlé Sory (b. 1943, Burkina Faso) photographs have been exhibited publically only since 1998, with his first solo presentations in Morocco, Burkina Faso and the United Kingdom in 2016-2017. The artist’s first U.S. solo museum exhibition, Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the Good People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty African Country of Burkina Faso, was curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky and opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018, with an accompanying catalog by Steidl Verlag. In the past year, photographs by Sory have been acquired for the permanent collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; North Carolina Museum of Art; RISD Museum and the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. SanléSory lives and works in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.