Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive, curated by Tamar Garb, presents historic portraits, cartes de visite, postcards, albums, and books from Africa, set in dialogue with contemporary photography and video by African artists. The exhibition offers new perspectives on the African archive, reimagining its poetic and political dimensions, its diverse histories, and its changing meanings.
The Walther Collection presents the third exhibition devoted to African photography and video art. This exhibition brings together late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century portraits, cartes de visite, postcards, album pages, and books from Southern and Eastern Africa, set in dialogue with recent photography and video by contemporary artists who have engaged with photographic archives. Distance and Desire offers new perspectives on the legacy of anthropological and ethnographic visions of Africans, reimagining the poetic and political dimension of the archive, its diverse histories, and its changing meanings. The culmination of a three-part exhibition series at The Walther Collection Project Space in New York, and the international symposium “Encounters with the African Archive,” co-organized by The Walther Collection, New York University, and University College London, the exhibition is accompanied by a major scholarly catalogue edited by Tamar Garb.
Distance and Desire unfolds in three thematic sections throughout the three main exhibition buildings of The Walther Collection.
The Black House:
Santu Mofokeng and A.M. Duggan-Cronin
A juxtaposition of A. M. Duggan-Cronin’s The Bantu Tribes of South Africa and Santu Mofokeng’s The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890-1950 introduces the concept of the photographic archive as both a repository of documents and an assemblage of representations. Duggan-Cronin, an Irish South African who lived in the mining town of Kimberley, set out to depict what he considered the disappearing indigenous populations of South Africa. His monumental study, entitled The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, published between 1928-1954, includes photographs, descriptive captions, and anthropological essays. In addition to presenting all eleven Bantu Tribes books, a complete sequence of photogravure plates from The Nguni: Baca, Hlubi, Xesibe (1954) will be on view, alongside a selection of vintage gelatin-silver prints by Duggan-Cronin, which had previously circulated as individual objects.
In contrast to Duggan-Cronin’s renowned and contested ethnographic vision of African heritage, Santu Mofokeng’s The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890-1950 portrays the modern self-representation of African subjects. In the early 1990s, the artist collected family studio portraits from late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century South Africa and transformed the images into a slide show, complete with narratives about the sitters. He also produced a series of gelatin-silver print reproductions of the portraits, which are on view together with a selection of the project’s original vintage prints and Mofokeng’s research notes. Envisioned as a “counter-archive,” The Black Photo Album challenges fixed ideas most often associated with images of Africans.
The Green House:
Poetics and Politics
The cornerstone of Distance and Desire is a presentation of previously un-exhibited vintage portraits, cartes de visite, postcards, and album pages, produced from the 1860s to the early twentieth century. Extraordinary in range and style, these images make visible both the ideological frameworks that prevailed during the colonial period in Africa and the exceptional skill of photographers working in the studio and landscape. “Poetics and Politics” offers a remarkable opportunity to view the narratives that emerge from this African photographic archive, describing in particular the experience of the studio: the curiosity between photographer and subject, the emergence and circulation of types, the range of portraiture, the negotiations of costume and pose, and the will for self-assertion.
The presentation investigates typical European depictions of Africans, from scenes in nature, to sexualized images of semi-nude models, to modern sitters posing in elaborate studios, critically addressing the politics of colonialism and the complex issues of gender, race, and identity. Original album pages of landscapes and ethnographic imagery are displayed alongside a series of carte de visite portraits of Africans, circulated in the 1870s from the Diamond Fields of Kimberley and popular “ethnic” post-cards from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The exhibition also features several double-sided displays of album pages, showing striking combinations of personal and stock images, and the juxtapositions of prominent figures in both African and Western contexts. Among over 150 images, the exhibition includes some of the finest examples of works by Samuel Baylis Barnard and the Lawrence Brothers of Cape Town, George T. Ferneyhough and the Caney Brothers in Natal, Barnett & Co from Johannesburg, W. Rausch from Bulawayo, and G. F. Williams from Port Elizabeth, as well as images by unidentified and unattributed photographers.
The White Box:
Centering on contemporary photography and video by African and African-American artists who have engaged with photographic archives, “Contemporary Reconfigurations” shows how a stereotype or ethnographic vision in one era provides material for an irreverent reworking, satirical performance, or elegiac reenactment in another. Carrie Mae Weems, in her powerful series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, appropriates mid-nineteenth-century anthropometric photographs of African-Americans, overlaying the images with poetic texts. Sammy Baloji, Candice Breitz, and Sue Williamson rework historic or ethnographic photographs onto collages. Samuel Fosso, Philip Kwame Apagya, and Kudzanai Chiurai create exuberantly staged studio portraiture, using backdrops and sets to critique stereotypes and identities. Zwelethu Mthethwa and Zanele Muholi examine sexuality, costume, and ritual, while David Goldblatt’s and Jo Ractliffe’s black-and-white portraits portray mineworkers and former military personnel as they chose to been seen in “traditional” clothing.
Sabelo Mlangeni’s photo essay “Iimbali” documents the reed dances of KwaZulu-Natal, showing the display of virgins vying to be chosen as brides. His series “Country Girls,” in contrast to the multiple visions of women posed “in nature” throughout the ethnographic archive, chronicles small-town transvestites who self-consciously perform their adopted identities for the camera. Pieter Hugo’s series “There’s a Place in Hell for Me & My Friends” examines ethnicity and skin tones through mug shots and Guy Tillim makes a typology of child soldiers training near Beni, in the eastern Congo. Jodi Bieber, in a reversal of previous voyeuristic visions of the black female body, presents women self-consciously posing in settings where they are in control of their own images. Working in video, Berni Searle performs as a statuesque deity engaged in domestic labor in Snow White, and Andrew Putter gives an indigenous voice to the effigy of Maria de la Quellerie, wife of the first Dutch settler in the area known today as Cape Town, in Secretly I Will Love You More. Together, through their work with the African archive, these artists pose compelling questions about identity and memory, leading to new readings of the exhibition’s vintage photographs.