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Auction marks coming of age of Africa’s photography

As shots of Marilyn Monroe by glam snapper Richard Avedon go on sale for tens of thousands of euros at Paris’ annual photo show, a collection of lesser cash but greater historical value goes under the hammer in Brussels.

In what is billed as the first auction yet held of African photography, some 300 lots of pictures spanning more than a century are up for sale Tuesday for an estimated 340,000 euros (464,000 dollars).

From dusty World War II battlefields in Libya, to a 1935 snap of Ethiopia’s royal Negus, and shots from the 1950s of Miriam Makeba or Nelson Mandela laughing during his treason trial, the pictures freeze people and places right across the continent.

Alongside dog-eared snaps dredged from dusty drawers are poster-sized contemporary works datelined from the North African countries of the Maghreb to the southern Cape of Good Hope.

“These are the beginnings of a recognition of African photography,” Freddy Denaes, head of the prestigious Editions de L’Oeil artbook publishers and a collector of art photography, told AFP.

“It’s a very good thing for African photographers to be able at last to see how their work is valued by the market,” he added.

Among works up for auction by Pierre Berge, former partner of the late Yves Saint-Laurent, are some by the continent’s most celebrated snappers — Malians Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, South Africans David Goldblatt, Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko and Jurgen Schadeberg, and Mozambique’s Ricardo Rangel.

Early works by Sidibe, now in his 70s, show picnics on the banks of the sweeping Niger, lovers, boxers and studio snaps.

“There are few photographs of the countryside, of nature,” said Vincent Godeau, a specialist on the topic who gathered the pictures up for auction. “African photographers, on the other hand, love to do portraits.”

A bunch of yellowing studio snaps, featuring children, couples and families all turned out in Sunday best, is the most highly-priced item for sale — an assortment of 14 smallish snapshots pinned on a board with coloured drawing-pins going for 15,000 euros.

The vintage photos are by Central African Samuel Fosso and were originally stuck on the door of his first studio, opened as a teenager in the 1970s.

One of Africa’s most celebrated portrait photographers, Sudan’s Al Rashid Mahdi, who died two years ago in his late 80s, worked much like Avedon and other celebrity photographers when he began shooting in the 1950s.

He used make-up to snap Khartoum high society, touched up negatives and fiddled with prints to wipe away wrinkles and spots. Among 21 of his rarely-seen portraits on sale is an iconic 1970s shot of a young officer in a cap with two etched tribal scars on his cheeks.

One of Mali’s most famous photographers, Keletigui Toure, was rediscovered two years before his 1998 death, when already in his 70s, by a young French colleague.

Toure, who hated shadow but used only his eye and instinct to measure light, had junked decades of negatives but forgotten a stray rusty box of black-and-white negatives in his mud-brick studio. The Frenchman, Frederic Vidal, rescued what was left and the photos were subsequently exhibited around the world.

“Most of these great photographers began as craftsmen, working people, there is a freshness in their vision of the world,” said Godeau. “Now contemporary African photography is booming as an art.”