Learning to fly

By GREG COOK  |  October 9, 2007
floor — reminded Coppin of the folktale “The People Could Fly,” about Africans who could fly but were sold into slavery and endured many miseries, until one day they flew to freedom. For Coppin, it’s a metaphor for the names, languages, religions, and history robbed from Africans when they were brought here as slaves, and the potential that that great legacy might be reclaimed and built upon.
 
“Between Me and the Other World” collects 42 sepia-toned photos that Coppin, a 54-year-old Brown University teacher, shot across the United States, Senegal, Barbados, Egypt, Cuba, and Brazil over more than 15 years. They appear to be documentary photos, but Coppin resists that characterization. He intends them as sociopolitical statements: “I’m interested in urban Africa and the African diaspora. I’m interested in urban Africa as a way of deconstructing negative visual portrayals of Africa, her people, and her culture.” Too many images of Africa, he says, misrepresent the continent as a place solely of poverty, war, disease, and bare-breasted women. “We have a role to play in Africa reclaiming her proper place in the world economy.”
 
He sees many of his images metaphorically. A 2001 photo of a guy laying upon a sandy mound on a vast dry plain becomes “Boy Dreaming of a Reconstructed Contin¬ent/Dakar, Senegal.” A stick frame for what could be the roof of a house becomes “In My Father’s House/St. Louis, Senegal” (2001). “I look at the picture,” Coppin tells me, “and what I think of is how Africa has been picked clean by European colonialism.” Coppin’s intended symbolism rings a bit didactic, but these remain among his most memorable images. The roof frame is a beautifully crafted, elemental form. The “Boy Dreaming” seems stranded in the middle of nowhere, or maybe a desert mirage.
 
Coppin records Cuban streets, a fish cutter in Dakar, Senegal, folksy hand-painted signs on Barbados and Brazil streets (a bar proclaiming itself “the spot for all sweethearts”), and crumbling Egyptian pyramids. The pictures reveal links between people scattered across vast distances and time. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. is painted on the shady wall of a Senegalese school. A photo of a couple in Senegal — she in a boldly patterned African dress, he in a Tupac shirt and Nike sandals — is hung next to an image of two young men in matching Bob Marley T-shirts in a crowd at a Philadelphia celebration. It is a vision of an all-black world with its own rites and glories, with people adapting and thriving, whatever their circumstances.
 
Five large grainy photos show the Celestial Church of Christ, a parish of Nigerian immigrants on Public Street in Providence. Personal and community pride radiate from parishioners outfitted in fine gowns and ruffled hats at their August 2006 harvest festival. These photos feel like the beginning of something Coppin is still figuring out. Coppin’s subjects throughout the exhibit are compelling. And his images are good, but exploring his website, I find Coppin is a sharper photographer than the exhibit suggests. Some of it is the image selection. I suspect the photographic printing has also sapped some of his snap and drama.
 
But then there’s a photo like “Untitled: Juneteenth, Manhat¬tan, Kansas” (1997). A marching band wraps around a big stone building, a school or town hall, perhaps, during an anniversary celebration of the abolition of American slavery. Coppin crops out much of the band to focus on two uniform¬ed girls wearing wide happy nervous excited smiles. One of them eyes a boy between them. He stands in his sleek uniform, with his arms folded behind his back, his eyes looking down, an oasis of calm gravity.
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