Angèle Etoundi Essamba left Cameroon for France in 1972 and lived there until she graduated from high school. She then moved to Amsterdam and in 1984 began to study photography at the Nederlandse Fotovakschool (Dutch Professional School of Photography), from which she graduated. As mentioned in the booklet for the exhibition Force et fierté (Dakar, Théodore-Monod Museum, 2016), A. Etoundi Essamba has always used her work to “portray womankind”. As such, her prolific production displays her constant ambition: to dedicate herself to photographing African women “beyond stereotypes”. These stereotypes can stem from the fantasies of both afro-pessimism and afro-optimism. In this sense, while A. Etoundi Essamba’s photographs display a deeply aesthetic sensibility – an ode and fascination for the female, black body – they are also political. By defying the boundaries between realistic photography, societal commentary, documentary, and a formal approach to the photographic medium (blacks, contrasts, reflection), her pictures strive to remain consistent with the complexity of their subjects.
A. Etoundi Essamba has mentioned several of her inspirations – from African to North American photographers – and the influences from the various countries she grew up and lived in. However, she has always stated that her intention was to dedicate her work to the representation of her “African heritage”. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, with her series Passions, Contrastes, and Noirs, her consistent aim was to show black-and-white-only depictions of “strong, proud, and empowered” women. Works such as Cobra (1986), Femme portant l’univers (Woman Carrying the Universe, 1993), Rupture 2 (1993), Héritage 3 (1999), Noir 26 and Noir 40 (2000), and Cheveux de paille (Straw Hair, 2005) are all examples of this first period. Later series are marked by her transition to colour series motivated by the aesthetic emotion she felt during her stays in Zanzibar and Mauritania. While they remain faithful to her aim to depict black women and to her previous work on contrast and texture, these series show an increasing interest in specific communities and “African heritages” – customs, resources, and stories, whether localised or endemic. Examples of this can be found in Un air d’antan (An Old Tune, 2002), Jaune bambou (Bamboo Yellow, 2008), Second Skin and Second Skin 3 (2014), Healing 5052 (2016), or Appartenance 4 (Belonging 4, 2018). This more anthropological orientation was confirmed in the series Invisible (2015) and Femmes de l’eau (Water Women, 2013) (including Regard sorti des profondeurs [Underwater Gaze]). The latter is a photographic narration of the lives of women who work in the sectors of energy, construction, commerce, and agriculture, and of the everyday life of the women of Ganvié, Benin, who are in charge of oyster fishing, trading, and transportation.
Since her first exhibition in Amsterdam in 1985, A. Etoundi Essamba’s work has been shown at a large number of institutions, biennales (including Venice, Havana, Dakar, Johannesburg, and Bamako), and fairs in Africa, Europe, the United States, Cuba, Mexico, and China. Several monographic exhibitions of her work have been held abroad, including several retrospectives, such as Daughters of Life at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich in 2018. Her works are featured in several public and private collections.