Review of Authentic Africa Exhibition at Alpha Art Gallery

Review of 'Authentic Africa Exhibition' at Alpha Art Gallery

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September 19, 2015

By: Joyce MacPhee, Ottawa

My first time at the all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche in Ottawa on Sept. 19 was exhilarating as I enthusiastically traipsed up and down George Street in the pouring rain. It was a heady experience. I briefly tried my hand at watercolour painting, walked a red carpet and was applauded by an adoring group of assembled “fans” behind a velvet rope, and ducked into the Ottawa School of Art. There I viewed exhibits such as an avant garde installation literally featuring writing on the wall.

Yet my most immersive experience awaited me at Alpha Art Gallery at 25 Murray Street. I stepped from the wet night into the Authentic Africa exhibit featuring photographs by Urszula Kozak, where her black and white portraits of African animals transported me to another continent, another reality.

The Ottawa photographer presented large- and small-format works taken during a trip to Africa. The photographs show crisp, clear images of animals set against often muted natural backgrounds. Many, such as the portrait of a stately lioness, clearly showed the gaze of the animals, which lent a sense of both intimacy and intensity.

Pieces such as Giraffe Trio illustrated Kozak’s wonderful appreciation of design. Three giraffes standing close together showed slender necks that appeared to be entwined but extended into a graceful tangle of backs and legs.

Black and white photographs dramatically show the qualities of these magnificent beasts. Three zebras at the watering hole had bold symmetric stripes worthy of op art, and a seated cheetah had beautiful rosette spots. An image of hippos huddled together emphasized their massive bulk and textured hide. Several lion photographs detailed their smooth fur, tousled manes and piercing eyes.

While some of the photos featured animals in still poses, others suggested movement. One evocative shot showed an elephant with a swinging trunk and clods of dirt thrust into the air. Simba and Cubs showed a cub playfully batting a brother or sister.

The most dramatic photograph was that of a lion standing in profile and I am tempted to say it looked fierce and proud even if that is anthropomorphizing. The most touching piece was an adult elephant with an adorable baby at its feet.

It is telling that many of the photographs at the exhibit were purchased by people who had travelled to Africa or previously lived there. They must have believed that Kozak had captured the essence of these animals and presented a truly authentic vision of Africa.

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