Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive
Tribal chiefs and kings, family portraits, archaic scenes in nature, and idealized warriors: clichéd images and stereotypical depictions of an exotic Africa seen through Western eyes. The emergence of photography in the nineteenth century allowed a curious public far from the colonies to cast their gaze on the African content. Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive brings together vintage portraits and figure studies, historic albums and books, as well as postcards and cartes de visite that were created in Southern Africa from the 1870s up to the early twentieth century. The photographs comprising this collection, which are extraordinary in both range and style, make visible the prevailing ideological frameworks of the colonial period in Southern Africa as well as the exceptional skill of the early photographers of this region.
By setting this historic archive of African photography in dialogue with recent photography and video by contemporary artists including Candice Breitz, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi, and Samuel Fosso, the exhibition opens up new perspectives on the poetic and political dimension of the collection, its diverse histories, and changing meanings. The exhibition critically engages the politics of colonialism and the complex questions of gender, race, and identity that are reflected in these early photographs.
Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive presents the African archive as a real repository for historic images and objects, and simultaneously as the starting point for contemporary creative exploration and political discourse. The fundamental mutability of meaning is a key focal point of the study. Taking the exceptional depth and richness of historic African photography from the Walther Collection as its point of departure, the exhibition shows how images of Africans were determined by the contexts in which they were created and disseminated. What in one case functions as marginalization or a demeaning stereotype—the idealized warrior, the noble savage, the shy beauty—may, in another case, provide the material for iconoclastic revision. What is understood in one period as an ethnographic study or a means of imposing control may, in another period, become the cornerstone of a melancholy re-staging or satirical performance.
Building on a selection of images and works groups from the Walther Collection, Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive highlights the visual strategies of the photographers and the contexts in which the pictures were—and are—circulated and seen. By bringing historic photographs together with contemporary photography and video works addressing the conventions, poses, attitudes, and the forms and visual languages of the past, the exhibition allows for a study of the parameters that supported racialized thinking and that influenced the representation of African bodies. While contemporary critical practices illuminate the attitudes of the past, the precise examination of historic photos reveals the impact of this archive on Africa’s contemporary visual culture.
The Walther Collection is focused on curatorial research, expanding the collection, the presentation of exhibitions, and the publication of books and catalogues of modern and contemporary photography and video. The collection has exhibition locations in Neu-Ulm and New York and is currently engaged in a multi-year study of African photography and video around the themes of portrait, landscape, and historic archives of the nineteenth century.