The Walther Collection
by Daniela Roth
Okwui Enwezor, Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and designated Director of the 56th Biennale in Venice (2015), curated the first exhibition of the Walther Collection, Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity in Neu-Ulm. He also edited the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Events of the Self was the beginning of a series of exhibitions covering several years of African photography and video art from the Walther Collection.
This international private collection is concentrated on the discovery, collection, exhibition and publishing of modern and contemporary photography and video art, and is sponsored by the non-profit Walther Family Foundation. The main site of the collection is in Neu-Ulm Burlafingen, Germany.
The exhibition location is comprised of four buildings; three are exhibition rooms and the fourth houses the administration
and library. It is located in a quiet residential area, and care has been taken to scale the architecture to the surrounding buildings. The only new building is the main exhibition house, the “Weiße Haus” (White House), a cube containing a large exhibition area on the ground floor. The other buildings were originally local residences. One house belongs to Artur Walther’s mother, today it is called the “Schwarze Haus” (Black House) of the collection and has an exhibition area divided into three galleries. The “Grüne Haus” (Green House) is a residential house from the 1950s, typical of the area. The interior is made up of cabinet-like rooms, which are suitable for exhibiting works in a small format. The exterior is covered with ivy, hence the name. The museum in Neu-Ulm Burlafingen was opened in June, 2010. Since April 2011, there has been a second location in New York – the Walther Collection Project Space.
The founder, Artur Walther was born in Neu-Ulm Burlafingen, studied at Harvard, was a successful banker in New York, and after renouncing his banker profession, turned to photography via a friendship with Bernd and Hilla Becher, concentrating entirely on the aesthetics. Today, his collection comprises an internationally important stock of contemporary African and Asian photography. For him, it is the social relevance of the exhibits that is most important in all his exhibitions. Every year or two, there is a new exhibition in Burlafingen. This means new purchases can be made to fine-tune the exhibition profile and to enlarge the collection.
The first exhibition, Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity presented three generations of African photographers from the 1940s until today. The main emphasis was on the development of portrait photography and posed the question as to how artists can make social change visible via portrait photography, while at the same time expressing their ideas of status, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. Enwezor juxtaposed African discoveries such as Seydou Keïta, the classic works of August Sander and the Hairstyles by J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere with the industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher – based solely on formal comparisons. Enwezor collected the basis of the entire “African photography” for Artur Walther. Portrait art and social change; typologies and taxonomies; as well as figuration and theatricality are the subject areas that interest Enwezor intellectually. He shows eroticism and identity by means of works by Rotimi Fani-Kayode and presents self-display and performance to advantage with Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé, Yto Barrada, Theo Eshetu and Samuel Fosso.
The second exhibition shows landscape photography, mainly from southern Africa. Appropriated Landscapes curated by Corinne Diserens comprises 200 photo and video works by 14 contemporary artists. The beauty of the landscape in southern Africa stands in contrast to the aftermath of apartheid. Numerous photographs have brought the inhuman rituals of the regime into plain view for the world public. This South African photography draws its significance from the political dimension. The exhibition does not link the empathy of a landscape solely with the historical concepts of what is picturesque or sublime, but regards landscape “as a prism of experience, as a reflection of ideology and a manifestation of memory”. The great chronicler, David Goldblatt gives the viewer insight into the social conditions of South Africa – an almost unsurpassable, heterogeneous picture. His photographic vision often penetrates the depths of the space and encloses the human figures within the city or landscapes surrounding them, allegorizing their dependence on their environment. Works from the 1950s up until the 1990s were exhibited; blackand-white silver-gelatin prints, architectural “structures”, high-rise buildings and “Bantustans” – homelands, separate residential areas of the black population. Both geographic and ideological structures.
Thirty Years of Photographic Essays by Santu Mofokeng from the 1980s when he lived in Soweto are also shown; daily life in the township and on the farms, religious rituals and the landscape. Beyond stereotyped news images of violence and poverty in Soweto, they make up an “authentic archive” of rural life, as well as of self-conception and the family histories of black South Africans. The famous picture, Winter in Tembisia from 1991 (Tembisia was founded as a township in 1957), an OMO commercial set in a mist-shrouded landscape, was hung resplendent in the stairwell. The Billboards show photographs of an artificial world of goods in the midst of bleak township-street landscapes. Mofokeng states that the Billboards served as “instruments of power” during apartheid, promulgating laws and prohibitions. Today, they appear to float – over-large advertising billboards aimed solely at the automobile traffic, seemingly completely divorced from the real life below and on their own level of meaning and image.
The South African photographer, Jo Ractliffe presents the series, As Terras do Fim do Mundo (Land at the End of the World), a discussion with the war-torn landscapes of Angola (works from 2007 to 2010). The photographs are analytical while at the same symbolic; the eerily still, rural views are revealed at closer sight as nameless monuments, anonymous mass graves or minefields.
Pictures of South African and Mozambican landscapes, architecture, social rituals and migration – these are referenced, for instance, by Guy Tillim: one is Grand Hotel Mozambique from 2008, an enormous, decaying concrete palace. Tillim gathers architecture from the decolonization period in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mozambique in his series, Avenue Patrice Lumumba, thereby commemorating the first head of state of independent Congo, murdered by the Allies. Sabelo Mlangeni’s, series At Home shows a village world marked by its own specific stillness and breadth. With Country Girls from 2009, the South African photographer achieves an intimate portrait of the life of homosexuals in the country, taken almost for granted there. Juxtaposed to this, Zanele Muholi, a young South African activist and photographer, thematizes the discrimination against lesbian women as Bodyscapes. A video film by Penny Siopis, Obscure White Messenger, 2010, shows poetic images from memory – an inner landscape indeed.
The third exhibition, Distance and Desire, Encounters with the African Archive, curated by the photo-historian, Tamar Garb, is the first exhibition in the Walther Collection that focuses on historic photographs, and is the third and last part of the exhibition cycle dedicated to the African section of the Walther Collection. It is to be seen until May 17, 2015. (Thursday to Sunday, viewing by appointment and with a guide.) Following the themes of portrait and landscape, this exhibition offers the concluding view of the early history of photography in Africa. Distance and Desire gathers portrait photographs, cartes de visite, postcards, album pages and books from the southern and eastern regions of Africa, from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. It includes historic photographs from unknown photographers, as well as from C.J. Aldham, Samuel Baylis and Barnard Barnett & Co. to W.D. Young. These are set against contemporary photographs and videos from Philip Kwame Apagya, Jodie Bieber, Sammy Baloji, Kudzanai Chiurai, Samuel Fosso, Jo Ractliffe and Sue Williamson. The carefully curated presentation includes individual portraits of warriors, women with beautiful hair arrangements and curiously decorated children. It shows group portraits, as well as ethnographic photographs that owe their provenance to the stereotyped view and curiosity of the colonial rulers, and today impart the understanding of an archive as a repository and ideal representation. In the contemporary section, a “contra archive” by Santu Mofokeng is shown; ethnographic photographs worked into large-format collages – by Sammy Baloji, Sue Williamson and Candice Breitz, for instance, as well as staged portraits by Samuel Fosso and Kudzanai Chiurai. Zwelethu Mthethwa and Zanele Muholi examine the relation between sexuality, modern dress and ritual. In 2015, the collection will dedicate itself to a series of exhibitions that will present the photographic concepts of typology, taxonomy and seriality in cross-cultural studies (how related form languages appear in different parts of the world). Works by artists and photographers from Africa, Asia, the United States and Germany will be placed in a common context.
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