The Walther Collection and the African Photographers
The Walther Collection is presently one of the main art foundations dedicated to the critical understanding and study of historical and contemporary photography, as well as related media. Nowadays, in addition to its relevant collection, the main activities undertaken by the entity relate with in-depth research on the current production, scholarly publications about the theme, and extensive itinerant exhibitions throughout the globe.
African photography and videoart have always been the focus of the of the collection of German-born Artur Walther.“I made many trips to Asia and Africa, visiting artists wherever they were: galleries, independent curators, museums, scholars, dealers, writers, and exhibition spaces. My method of collecting is very personal,” says Walther. The collector highlights that, from the 2000s, African artists, particularly those from rapidly growing cities, became concerned with postcolonial matters of identity, gender, and social change.
In 2004, Walther embarked on an extensive travel program throughout the African continent with curator Okwui Enwezor. The initiative resulted in a series of major exhibitions and publications including its inaugural project in 2010, “Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity”, at the collection headquarters in Neu-Ulm, Germany. It gathered works by three generations of African artists, cutting across colonial and postcolonial stories. The exhibition considered the changing roles of portraiture and the manifold ways artists see themselves during times of social transition, from the early 20th century to the present.
Two more exhibitions on African photography followed in quick succession. “Appropriated Landscapes” (2011) presented the idea of landscape in its broadest terms, examining how architecture and spatial planning conveyed the social order and ideology of the apartheid in South Africa. Not regarded in terms of its sublime or picturesque qualities, landscape acted rather as a prism reflecting the experiences of migration, colonialism, war, and industrialization. “Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive” (2013), on the other hand, explored historical photography from Southern Africa, with archival images by African artists. The exhibition offered new perspectives on the legacy of anthropological and ethnographic visions of Africans – reimagining the poetic and political dimensions of the archive, its diverse histories, and its changing meanings.
Likewise, since the opening of the collection’s New York Project Space in 2011, fourteen exhibitions focused entirely on African photography and video art have been presented there. The program has included monographic presentations featuring the work of artists such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Samuel Fosso, Santu Mofokeng, and Jo Ractliffe; comparative exhibitions presenting the work of photographers such as Seydou Keïta and August Sander; and investigations on vernacular photography, including images from the Gulu Real Art Studio in Uganda and the Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley Studio in apartheid-era South Africa.
The large-scale exhibition of 2017 in Neu-Ulm, “Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art”, brought The Walther Collection’s extensive exploration of African photography and video art up to the very present. The exhibition featured the work of fourteen contemporary artists of African descent, born in the early 1970s and later, whose researches approach social identity, questions of belonging, and an array of sociopolitical concerns – including migration, lineage, and the legacies of colonialism –, as well as personal experiences.
“I want to learn to know the artists, understand the context of their work and return time and again to follow the development of their oeuvres and collect them in depth. It was a difficult step to move beyond what is familiar to me. I struggled with each individual picture, because it was something completely new and foreign. I had to get out of myself and my preconceptions, borders, and limits. My exciting senses and emotions did not work in those cultures,” the collector concludes.
This piece was first published at the second edition of SP-Arte Magazine, in August, 2018.