Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso

Designed to resemble a cross between a photography studio and a record store, this multisensory exhibition brings together commercial studio photography and popular music from the former West African country of Upper Volta. Through this dynamic conjunction of image and sound, Volta Photo examines the postcolonial culture of an economically challenged but recently liberated country negotiating its local, regional, and international identities.

In 1960, photographer Sanlé Sory (born 1943) opened his studio, Volta Photo, at the center of Bobo-Dioulasso, the cultural capital of what was then Upper Volta. He specialized in portraits—of Fula villagers, elaborately dressed Malians, and other inhabitants of that vibrant cultural crossroads. A clever, youthful studio operator, Sory appealed to his sitters’ desires for signs of modernity and leisure, offering a few choice props such as a telephone and a motorbike and using painted backdrops of scenes associated with travel including a beach and an airplane.

Mutual appreciation brought Sory together with the music ensembles that flourished in Upper Volta from the 1950s through 1980s. These popular orchestras, combinations of up to a dozen or more musicians, melded instruments and rhythms rooted in West African musical formations—including Cuban salsa, James Brown–style funk, and early rock’n’roll—with regional musical and narrative traditions of the Mande and other cultures. Sory photographed many of them, including Volta Jazz and other stars of the Bobo scene, as well as music fans and partygoers, especially in the villages around Bobo. Sory also mounted his own music parties in the villages.

This immersive installation brings the complex culture of Upper Volta to life through more than 100 of Sory’s photographs from the 1960s; objects from Volta Photo such as its signature backdrop, studio lights, and several props; digitized music from the era; and 45-rpm records. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.