Distance and Desire, Encounters with the African Archive, Part II: Contemporary Reconfigurations @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of total of 26 photographs and 2 videos by 11 different artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung in the main gallery space (with one glass case) and the side book alcove. The works in the show were made between 1994 and 2012. The exhibit was curated by Tamar Garb, and is the second installment of a larger three-part series. (Installation shots at right.)

The following artists/photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view and their details in parentheses:

  • Philip Kwame Apagya (2 chromogenic prints, 1998, 2000)
  • Sammy Baloji (1 archival digital photograph on satin matte paper, 2006)
  • Candice Breitz (1 chromogenic print, 1994-1996)
  • Samuel Fosso (2 chromogenic prints, 1997)
  • Pieter Hugo (8 archival pigment prints on Warmtone Baryta Fibre paper, 2011, 2012)
  • Sabelo Mlangeni (4 gelatin silver prints, 2011)
  • Zwelethu Mthethwa (1 digital c-print, 2010)
  • Zanele Muholi (1 chromogenic print and 2 lambda prints, 2006, 2007, 2010)
  • Andrew Putter (1 video installation, 2007)
  • Berni Searle (1 two channel video projection, 2001)
  • Carrie Mae Weems (4 chromogenic prints with sandblasted text on glass, 1995-1996)

Comments/Context: In spite of its tucked away location on the 7th floor in the rabbit warren of galleries at 526 West 26th in Chelsea (now with an out of service elevator), the Walther Collection has quietly become one of the best places in the city to see thoughtfully curated, high quality African photography. Over the course of nearly a year, the venue is putting on a three part series of scholarly exhibits that revolve around questions derived from the “African Archive”, the aggregation of photographic imagery (from ethnographic and anthropological studies to tourist snapshots and classic studio portraiture) that makes up the visual history of the region and its people. This show is the second part in this ongoing dialogue and gathers together a smart selection of contemporary works that react to and often undermine the stereotypes and cliches that run through the archival material.

The loosely posed portrait of tribal men and women, bare chested and wearing traditional beads and skins, standing against a background of thatched huts or wide open bush is likely the most common trope of African photography, so it’s not at all surprising that contemporary artists have found countless ways to subvert this genre. Zanele Muholi has substituted androgynous young men for the usual subjects, outfitting them in portions of traditional garb and throwing in a splash of modern cross dressing gender uncertainty. Zwelethu Mthethwa has captured the predictable grassland scene celebrating a religious ceremony, but has documented boys dressed in the kilts of Scottish missionaries rather than the standard loin cloths and spears. Sammy Baloji has collaged together an archival portrait of tribesmen with color landscapes of the ugly hills of mining slag that have replaced the previously unspoiled lands. And Candace Breitz has appropriated a postcard view of a tribal woman and overpainted her skin in ghostly zinc white, highlighting how we might see this kind of image if the skin tones were different.

Staged studio portraiture has been disrupted with equal verve and intelligence. Pieter Hugo darkens the skin of his sitters to the point where the varying skin types all look black, making the old ways of separation and classification impossible. Andrew Putter’s video portrait of a Dutch settler in her headscarf and lacy shawl appears conventional, that is until you put on the headphones and hear her singing a lullaby in Khoikhoi with its clicks and glottal stops. And Samuel Fosso exaggerates the styles of Keïta and Sidibé, dressing himself in a patchwork technicolor dreamcoat with high heels, necklaces, and a cowboy hat, or styles himself as a funky colonial chief, with space age sunglasses, a leather handbag and fancy shoes.

In the best possible way, this is a teaching show. It sets up our inherent biases and derived opinions about African imagery and knocks them down with meticulous well-edited precision, while at the same time exposing us more fully to a diverse and talented group of contemporary African artists who are engaging the past with knowledge and purpose.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a non-commercial space, no prices were available for the works on view. Gallery representation for the various artists (where available) is listed below:

  • Philip Kwame Apagya: 51 Fine Art Photography (here)
  • Sammy Baloji: Axis Gallery (here)
  • Candice Breitz: White Cube (here)
  • Samuel Fosso: work available at Jack Shainman Gallery (here)
  • Pieter Hugo: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)
  • Sabelo Mlangeni: Stevenson Gallery (here)
  • Zwelethu Mthethwa: Jack Shainman Gallery (here)
  • Zanele Muholi: Stevenson Gallery (here)
  • Andrew Putter: Stevenson Gallery (here)
  • Berni Searle: Stevenson Gallery (here)
  • Carrie Mae Weems: Jack Shainman Gallery (here)

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Read more about: Andrew Putter, Berni Searle, Candice Breitz, Carrie Mae Weems, Philip Kwame Apagya, Pieter Hugo, Sabelo Mlangeni, Sammy Baloji, Samuel Fosso, Zanele Muholi, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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