By HOLLAND COTTER
IF Martians tuned in to our television news broadcasts, they'd have a miserable impression of life on Earth. War, disease, poverty, heartbreak and nothing else. That's exactly how most of the world sees Africa: filtered through images of calamity. "Afro-pessimism" is the diagnostic term that Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born art historian and curator, uses for the syndrome. And he has offered bracing antidotes to it in two major photography exhibitions.
The first, "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present," appeared at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1996. It was fantastic, a revelation. Now, a decade later, the second one has arrived, "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography" at the International Center of Photography. It, too, is fantastic — stimulating, astringent, brimming with life — and different from its predecessor.
Mr. Enwezor's basic goal is clear. He is not interested in cosmetic spin, in exchanging an upbeat Africa for a downbeat one, smiles for frowns. Rather, he engineers a slow, complex, panoptical turn in perspective, one that takes in many moods and directions.
In the earlier show that view spanned nearly a half century. In the new one it concentrates almost entirely on work from the last five years. And there are other shifts in balance. "In/Sight" was dominated by photographic portraiture, early examples of modern African self-imaging that broke with colonialist models.
No more pictures of villagers standing, mute, in "native attire" with the sun in their eyes as some Belgian or British or French or German cameraman lined them up in his lens. Studio portraits from the 1940's and 50's by Salla Casset of Senegal and Seydou Keïta of Mali were collaborations between artists and sitters, Africans and Africans. Details were discussed. A "look" was negotiated. After all, the sitters were paying. They had every right to like what they saw.
"Snap Judgments," by contrast, includes as many cityscapes as portraits. It is a thoroughly postcolonial show. Most all of the artists were born during or after the years of independence in the 1960's. They play with Africanness, customize it, make it personal, avoid it, ignore it, bring it to the international table and take from that table, while building on the work of their predecessors.
Surely, for example, there is a line of descent from Casset and Keïta to the young South African artist Nontsikelelo Veleko, called Lolo, born in 1977, and her eye-tingling pictures of Johannesburg street fashion. That line also connects to the great Samuel Fosso, a star of the Guggenheim show. He is not in "Snap Judgments," but artists inspired by his trying-on-identities self-portraits are.
Outstanding among them is Mohamed Camara of Mali, just barely out of his teens; he's a sparkler, someone to watch. And I detect Mr. Fosso's spirit in Tracey Rose's Genesis sendups, in which Adam and Yves meet evolution; and in Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé's splintered, balletic self-images. Like Mr. Fosso, all these artists riff on the ethnographic photography that spelled Africa to the West not long ago.
As in the earlier show, there's a generous amount of photodocumentary. Mamadou Gomis's shots of everyday life in Dakar appear regularly in one of that city's daily newspapers. Zohra Bensemra's pictures of women in a violence-plagued Algiers have the in-the-trenches heat of reportage, as does Guy Tillim's exploration of post-apartheid racism in South Africa. Other comparably fact-based work, however, was made outside of any journalistic context.
Sada Tangara's images of homeless children sleeping in Dakar streets are an essay in personal history; a short time ago, he was one of those children. Mikhael Subotzky, born in South Africa in 1981, took his panoramic views of a maximum-security prison near Cape Town as a college graduation project. The inmates depicted are just anonymous men behind bars until you learn that Nelson Mandela spent four years as a prisoner there. Suddenly, they are something more.
Not all the artists are from Africa. Theo Eshetu, of Ethiopian descent, was born in London and lives in Rome. His film, "Trip to Mount Ziqualla," recording a religious pilgrimage in Ethiopia, is self-consciously the work of an outsider-insider: anthropological, diaristic, replete with music-video effects and a soundtrack mixing hip-hop and religious chants.
The Conceptualist bent of the show is most striking. Andrew Dosunmu, a New York filmmaker who grew up in Nigeria, turns "African" into an international high style in a wall of photographs that have the louche glamour of a fashion spread. Allan deSouza's "Lost Pictures" are photographs of photographs: he turns family slides into prints, leaves the prints around his home to gather dirt and dust, then rephotographs them. The figures of the artist's parents — South Asians from East Africa who moved to England — are all but invisible beneath the layers of accumulation.
Also notable, particularly in comparison with the earlier show, is how often the human presence is minimized or absent. In Boubacar Touré Mandémory's urban street scenes, people leap in and out of the frame; in a rapid-fire slide show by the Nigerian collective Depth of Field, the citizens of Lagos, Nigeria, pass in blur.
Johannesburg is a ghost town in Jo Ractliffe's extraordinary drive-by cityscapes, made with a toy camera. And in Fatou Kandé Senghor's four dozen fragmentary shots of the now abandoned and derelict Court of Law in Dakar, a 1950's French colonial building become the pieces of a shattered utopian puzzle.
Actually, this modernist ruin could be almost anywhere in the world; there is nothing distinctively African about it. And in a sense, Africanness, as an elusive, possibly delusive concept, is one of the show's themes. Otobong Nkanga plays with the idea in a series of photographs made partly in Nigeria and partly in Germany. Only through minute examination of details can the locations be distinguished.
And there is no visual way at all to situate the objects — a bench, a pot, a pink dish towel — in a series of still-life photographs by Moshekwa Langa, a young artist who himself resists being pinned down to any style or identity. He is a painter, collagist, filmmaker, installation artist; no one knows what to expect from him next. I would not have expected these photographs, so spare and tender.
Why should we call them African? Because Mr. Langa is African by birth, though he lives in Europe; because Mr. Enwezor has included them in his marvelous, mold-breaking African show; exactly because they are not "African" in any of the outmoded ways we know and cling to; because they are rooted in the world, which they help to make beautiful; and because they travel with ease and grace through intercultural space.