J.K. Bruce Vanderpuije: El ícono oculto de la fotografía africana

Katelyn Tamakloe viaja a Londres para ver la obra de su abuelo, el difunto fotógrafo ghanés J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije, en la feria de arte africano contemporáneo “1-54”. Sin embargo, quedó sorprendida al descubrir otra de sus imágenes, sin acreditar, en la colección del Museo Victoria and Albert de la capital británica. “Pregunté cómo obtuvieron la foto y me dijeron que estaba en la biblioteca”, recordó en una entrevista con CNN. “Tenemos el original (en nuestros archivos), pero de alguna manera se llevó una copia al Reino Unido, y en el camino, su historia se perdió”.

J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije fue uno de los documentalistas más destacados de África occidental en el siglo XX. Capturó un prolífico registro de la vida en Ghana antes y después de la independencia, ilustrando las cambiantes modas y prácticas culturales del país con retratos de parejas jóvenes casándose, bebés recién nacidos y la vida cotidiana durante más de 70 años. A lo largo de su carrera, también tuvo encuentros con numerosos líderes comunitarios y figuras políticas importantes, entre ellos Kwame Nkrumah, el primer presidente de Ghana después de su independencia de Gran Bretaña en marzo de 1957.

Durante más de una década, Kate Tamakloe ha estado a cargo del archivo de unas 50,000 imágenes de Deo Gratias Photo Studio, que su abuelo fundó en el barrio Jamestown de Accra, Ghana, en 1922. La labor de protegerlas y corregir omisiones en colecciones internacionales se ha convertido en una parte vital de su trabajo.

En colaboración con Efie Gallery en Dubái, la fotógrafa etíope Aïda Muluneh ha curado una nueva exposición titulada “Desvelando las sombras del pasado: J.K. Bruce-Vanderpuije, el icono oculto de la fotografía en África” que destaca imágenes de los años 20 y 30, cuando Ghana todavía era una colonia británica (entonces conocida como la Costa de Oro).

Cuando se observa el trabajo de Bruce-Vanderpuije, “pienso en la responsabilidad que tenemos de preservar los rostros cambiantes del continente”, señaló Muluneh en una entrevista con CNN. “Su dedicación al campo y el gran cuerpo de trabajo son un diario de un país y su gente”, agregó, refiriéndose a los eventos significativos que capturó Bruce-Vanderpuije, incluyendo el momento en que tres ex combatientes que protestaban por las asignaciones de guerra no pagadas fueron tiroteados fatalmente. Este incidente desencadenó los disturbios de Accra de 1948 y llevaría a cambios constitucionales que darían forma a la independencia eventual del país.

Born in March 1899, James Kobla (J.K) Bruce-Vanderpuije studied at the Accra Royal School and enjoyed photography as a hobby in his teens. Later, he trained with J.A.C Holm (another Ghana-based photographer) for three years before establishing his own studio aged just 23. Despite growing up privy to the studio and her grandfather’s practice, Tamakloe’s involvement was almost happenstance; after an accident caused her to move her cybercafé business to the studio, she began supporting her father — Isaac Hudson Bruce-Vanderpuije, also a photographer and an earlier custodian of the studio — when his eyesight started to deteriorate. “Once, a photographer from South Africa visited and said, ‘You guys are sitting on a goldmine,'” she explained. “That’s when I paid more attention and realized that I needed to do this. I needed to sort out the archive.” For the past 12 years, Tamakloe has been digitalizing her grandfather’s pictures. “I’m still making a lot of discoveries, which is very exciting.” She added, recounting how some of Bruce-Vanderpuije’s subjects were identified decades later — including Miss Ghana 1958 and Seth Anthony, the first Black African to be commissioned as an officer in the British army, who were both recognized in pictures by their grown-up children. “I have always been fascinated to see the reaction of the young generation when they see images of people from the past,” noted Muluneh, who has worked on a number of archive-building projects in Ethiopia. “The magic of photography, for me, is that it can bring us back to a time and moments that offer a unique perspective of not only understanding our people, but also ourselves. I believe that a bigger discussion is needed as it relates to the preservation, publication and promotion of the visual archives of Africa.” Tamakloe is similarly engaged in pursuing this conversation, and keen to export her grandfather’s work more broadly. Ultimately, she said, “I would like to tell the Ghanaian story, truthfully.” J. K. Bruce Vanderpuije/Courtesy Deo Gratias Studio/Efie Gallery Taken in 1936, this image shows Kojo Ababio IV (center), an important figure in Accra’s politics. Today, nearly two years after celebrating its centenary, Deo Gratias is widely considered to be the oldest operational photo studio in West Africa, and is still largely used as it was in its early years (albeit with a different, smaller crowd), said Tamakloe. “It’s in a very densely populated area and we have a lot of festivals happening around us — we’re also surrounded by churches — so people still come and have their photograph taken all dressed up,” she explained. With a shift in new technologies and the way we interact with photography evolving, however, Tamakloe acknowledged that most people now look elsewhere for their mementos. “People do come and have passport pictures taken, but it’s not as busy as it used to be,” she said. “These days, people take photographs on their phones. Those who do come in though, want a print to keep and probably frame.”

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