The Walther Collection

On November 10, 2012, The Walther Collection collaborated with NYU’s Department of Photography and Imaging and the University College London, for a symposium on ‘Alternative Ways to Describe Historic and Contemporary African Photography.’ The one day event coincided with The Walther Collection Project Space’s exhibition series titled:  Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive. A discussion amongst academics to explore the various categories used to describe both historic and contemporary photographs of Africans. Colonial, ethnographic, anthropological and artistic.

Listed as ‘an opportunity for rethinking the African archive in relation to the concerns of contemporary critics and artists,’ panelists gathered from around the world, University of Cape Town, New York University, South African National Gallery, and Princeton University to name a few.  While I was not in attendance, I couldn’t help but wonder if the panelists engaged in a lively debate and if the end result was not just more research but a call to action?

“Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity” at The Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, 2010-2011.
White Box installation View – Underground Gallery © Jens Weber.

 

What are the tools used when describing an African photograph? Is the toolbox outdated and what must be done in order to properly frame both contemporary and historic imagery? As a former photography agent, I am rife with questions.  I find the interpretation of the photograph to be a precarious one. While an image can be riddle with certain facts pertinent to a particular time: clothing, hairstyle, rural or urban landscapes, and so forth, an image cannot simply be defined by what you see in front of you.  Can we fully comprehend what an image may be telling us, if it is not accompanied by contextualising documentation?

On one hand, the photographer is in charge of inventing and dis-inventing the image before us.  He or she sets the parameters.  What then, is the role of the institution, critic or curator when it comes to managing the archive, (African in this case), so that it allows for dissipation of stereotypes and encourages further investigation?

From the exhibition ‘August Sander and Seydou Keïta : Portraiture and Social Identity’
L | August Sander, Jungbauern (Young Farmers), 1914. R | Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1952-1955. Courtesy of the Walther Collection.

 

The Walther Collection seems to be striving towards a contextualising balance. A non-profit institution out of Neu-Ulm, Germany it has an extensive archive of over 1,200 images, with one of the largest African and Asian collections of photographs in the world.  Opened in 2010 by collector Artur Walther, the foundation is keen on striking a unique curatorial platform that consists of one-year exhibitions curated by individual curators, as well as extensive publications to accompany each show. The space, a 4-building complex is comprised of an administrative office, and three spaces titled the White Box, Green House and Black House all of which I am told, allows for a more cerebral experience.

“Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity” at The Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, 2010-2011.
Black House Installation View : Bernd and Hilla Becher and Malick Sidibé © Jens Weber.

 

Walther, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, has been pursuing his photographic interest and collection since the 1990s.  When I had the chance to catch up with the seminal collector, he told me he began his collection with pieces by Bern and Hilla Becher, which later expanded to include August Sander. When Walther turned east in the 1990s an early champion of Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei and south to Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, this period marked his departure from collecting photographers culturally akin to his German heritage.

J.D. 'Okhai Okeikere, Untitled, 1970s. Courtesy of the Walther Collection.

J.D. ‘Okhai Okeikere, Untitled, 1970s. Courtesy of the Walther Collection.

 

A collection, not solely built on his own interests, Okwui Enwezor was instrumental in the development and acquisition of Walther’s African assemblage. Since opening its doors, the public has been able to engage and appraise the works of renowned African photographers such as Santu Mokofeng, Malick Sidibé, David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim and J.D.‘Okhai Okeikere in annual exhibitions thematically dispersed throughout the different buildings. The inaugural exhibition titled Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity introduced works from its African Collection and was curated by Enwezor. The second, Appropriated Landscapes curated by Corinne Diserens is on view until Spring 2013.

Meeting Walther at the institution’s New York project space, I was treated to a private view of archival photographs taken as far back as the early 1800s. As I looked through this body of work, alongside images from contemporary photographers Zanele Muholi and Philip Kwame Apagya (part of ongoing exhibition series titled Distance and Desire, Part II: Contemporary Reconfigurations), I couldn’t help but think of the visual representation of the black body. On one hand, the older photographs were strikingly beautiful. In their simplicity (think environmental portraiture), compositional framing, and lighting as told through a sepia hue. However, looking past the technical proficiencies, I saw images of people that were perhaps part of a small village, and in some cases ‘scantily’ clad or wearing clothing akin to their tribe.  I couldn’t help but wonder if they asked to be photographed or if they were being ‘documented’ against their will.

Philip Kwame Apagya. Come on Board!, 2000. Courtesy of the Walther Collection.

Philip Kwame Apagya. Come on Board!, 2000. Courtesy of the Walther Collection.

There is always a myriad of questions surrounding the photograph, its context, its preservation and its interpretation. It is this understanding of both the medium and how its contribution is presented to the larger society that can be aptly described as the lynchpin of the Walther Collection.

 

Stephanie Baptist | In a previous interview ‘Art Basel 2011, Africa and Beyond’ you stated that your photographic collection is driven by a series or typology of works.  Is there a discernible difference with this approach when acquiring German works versus African works? August Sander vs. Seydou Keïta?

Artur Walther | There are big differences. During that interview I was explaining that having lived in the United States for 20 years, I was investigating myself, my environment, my interests and I use photography to do this. What I noticed in this investigation was that the Bechers, Sander or Blossfeldt had a very natural and direct connection to my thinking. Therefore my connection [to their works] became immediate, and I related that to a certain degree, to their connection to my culture and upbringing.  So when looking at that work and then my travel to China in the late 90s, I was exposed to a cultural scene in China that was under tremendous change. So for me, at that point in time, not only to become connected and knowledgeable with Chinese history and culture but the way the artist used the medium was very different.  It took me quite a number of years to connect and understand it.  My collection of Chinese photography was deliberately slow. African photography, clearly ties into history, culture and development. I would say each of these areas, is a process of study and research and understanding.

 

SB | Is there a disconnect between the discourse surrounding contemporary African photography and the artists’ intended meaning or artistic intent?

AW | No, not really but I think there is a lack of writing, lack of research, a lack of exhibiting, a lack of publishing, with regards to African art.

 

SB | How would you describe the connection between the architectural design of The Walther Collection and your photography collection?

AW | There clearly is a connection. A lot of thought was given to the structure in Germany. It is outside of Neu Ulm, a very old and historical city influenced by modern German design (post-Bauhaus design schools). The buildings are 4 miles outside of  Neu Ulm, in a working class village. The main structure is underground and 5,000 SQ FT, with high ceilings. Temperature and light controlled and ideal for exhibiting and showing large scale photography. The other 2 buildings, utilize existing vernacular structures from the 50s, with the same exteriors from that era. You can travel thru these different spaces with complete varying impressions and feelings and then you see African portraiture or landscapes. It is a very interesting experience, as one has to travel from building to building to experience cohesive themes that are dispersed throughout various buildings.

“Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity” at The Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, 2010-2011.
White Box Installation View : Rotimi Fani Kayode © Jens Weber.

 

SB | What was the impetus for collecting African photography?

AW | A number of factors play a role. It depends on ones own way of investigating, searching and discovering. When I looked at African photography, I was familiar with J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and also some South Africans, David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim, and a few others. By traveling and meeting them, the collection started. When I begun to think about the development of the Walther Collection, it made me very focused on the concept.  What would I show, how would I show it? It was an all-encompassing process, broad and very deep.

 

For more insight on the Walther Collection | walthercollection.com

 

 

Written by Stephanie Baptist

 

 

All images courtesy of the Walther Collection. All rights reserved.

 

 

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