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Culture

Photography defines West's view of Africa

How does the West view Africa? Their images over time have been closely tied to the development of photography. An exhibition in Germany now explores how external ideas about Africa have been shaped by photographs.

The sedate district of Burlafingen in the Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm is not the first place you'd expect to find one of Europe's most ambitious exhibition spaces for contemporary photography and video art.

But here on a quiet residential street surrounded by open fields is the Walther Collection, a cluster of four buildings housing a unique archive of images primarily focusing on photography from Asia and Africa.

It's also home to the latest in a series of events exploring African photography, the exhibition "Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive."

The show examines the different ways in which people in southern and eastern Africa have been portrayed in photographic images from the invention of photography in the 19th century colonial period through to the beginning of apartheid in South Africa.

"Africa is one of the places where photography is reinvented and retooled within a very different context and was really fundamental in the circulation of a particular image of Africa in the West," curator Tamar Garb, a South African-born art historian, told DW.

Imagining Africa

The invention of photography coincided with the acceleration of colonialism in the 19th century and the new academic disciplines of anthropology and ethnology. From the 1860s, the camera came to be used as a device to gather information, record societies, and classify individuals within the colonial context.

A.M. Duggan-Cronin, Ovambo (Ogandjera) Woman, 1936

Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin documented the Bantu peoples, including this Ovambo (Ogandjera) woman (1936)

"Distance and Desire" shows how this culminated in the development of an anthropological and ethnographical mode of looking at Africans which was pictorially constructed according to certain conventions.

While the sources of these pictorial conventions can be found in earlier paintings, drawings and engravings, the exhibition highlights how photography made it possible to reproduce images on a vast scale and circulate them around the world, making them influential in shaping the outside perspective on Africa.

"Whole markets developed for the creation of photographic types that would then be sold around the world and people would collect them and place them in their albums and send them to their relatives. So photography made for the proliferation of these kinds of images of Africans and so it's powerfully important in terms of the construction of a modern view of Africa," Garb said.

Complex story of identity

The first part of the exhibition comprises of works by South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, who is one of the four artists representing Germany at this year's Venice Biennale, and Irish-born South African photographer Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin.

In a series of photographs and anthropological essays, Duggan-Cronin documented the disappearing indigenous populations of South Africa. In addition to the 11 books from his monumental, though highly contested study "The Bantu Tribes of South Africa" (1928-1954), the exhibition includes a selection of vintage prints and photogravure plates from Duggan-Cronin's archive.

Moeti and Lazarus Fume pictured by an unknown photographer in Santu Mofokeng's Black Photo Album.

Moeti and Lazarus Fume pictured by an unknown photographer in Santu Mofokeng's "Black Photo Album"

Presented as a type of "counter-archive" to these works is Santu Mofokeng's project, "The Black Photo Album: Look at Me: 1890-1950," revealing how African subjects chose to represent themselves in front of the camera in self-commissioned photographs.

Collected by Mofokeng in the early 1990s and presented in the form of a slideshow, the vintage studio portraits of urban, black, working- and middle-class subjects in the late 19th and early 20th century tell a complex story of identity, aspiration and self-imagination.

For Mofokeng, the portraits highlight the devastating consequences of apartheid for society in South Africa, the wiping-out of the black middle-class and the role photographic images played in the pseudo-scientific theories of racial hierarchy.

"Looking at the 'Black Photo Album,' you realize the damage apartheid did to this country," Mofokeng told DW. "On the one side you have the colonizers, and then basically you are trying to be like them. People who are excluded from within try to get into the fold."

Photographic mise-en-scène

Photographic studios proliferated in Africa in the 1860s and 70s, especially in port cities such as Cape Town where there were high numbers of European travelers and settlers who either needed or wanted a portrait of themselves and their relatives.

A carte de visite by the British Gray Brothers captioned “Zulu / Young Warrior in fighting order, and in skin Kaross. Armed with hatchet and assegai,” South Africa. c. 1870

The British Gray Brothers produced this carte de visite of a Zulu man in South Africa, c. 1870

From very early on, Africans also began to commission photographs of themselves in the studios and the archival images used by Mofokeng in the "Black Photo Album" depict African subjects dressed in Western clothing, resembling Victorian subjects in top hats and tails.

"It's interesting when you look at a lot of the historical photographs in the show because of course they import European conventions like Victorian studio backdrops with a man posing half-naked with an assegai and a sword. And so you get these funny hybrids which are highly unlikely and are absolutely the product of a photographic mise-en-scène," Garb said.

The studios were also used for commercial purposes to make popular "ethnic" postcards, or carte de visite, which were widely circulated in the West. A selection of them is presented in the second section of the exhibition, "Poetics and Politics."

New perspectives

The third and final section of the exhibition, "Contemporary Reconfigurations," presents the video and photographic art by contemporary African artists who engage with the colonial photographic archive in their work.

Works by Samuel Fosso, Philip Kwame Apagya and Kudzanai Chiurai recreate the staged studio portraiture found in the archive to critique stereotypes and identities.

The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonialists (1997) by Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso

"The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonialists" (1997) by Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso

Elsewhere, in her series "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," Carrie Mae Weems appropriates mid-19th-century anthropometric photographs of African-Americans, overlaying the images with poetic texts.

Photography from and about Africa has been garnering considerable attention in the art world over the past few years, something which Garb believes is in part due to its incredible diversity and historical density.

"With globalization and with the acknowledgment that the periphery is now the new center, there's a sort of worldwide acknowledgement, at last, very belatedly, that everything doesn't necessarily stem from European models and sources but that powerful, local and specific geographical practices merge in many, many different places and Africa is one of those places," she explained.

"Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive" runs at the Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm through May 17, 2015.

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