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Top hat and tales

Two collections of South African photographs

Olivia Weinberg | September/October 2012

The Walther Collection Project Space in New York sits smugly in a heap of arty spaces in a former factory in Chelsea. The premise: "to help foster an international dialogue about global contemporary photography." Here’s how. "Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive" is a new programme examining African photography from the late 19th and early 20th century. It starts in New York, finishes at the Collection's HQ in Neu-Ulm, Germany (in 2014) and comes in three chunky parts, with about 200 images on show, including portraits, postcards, albums, cartes de visite and books.

Part one shows two key works. "The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950" by Santu Mofokeng (1997), is a lengthy collection of family portraits of black South Africans, presented as a slideshow. The images, which were commissioned, were mostly taken at the end of the 19th century, well before apartheid. Women stand convincingly in full dresses, puffed sleeves and frilly collars; men proudly wear top hats and handkerchiefs. The pictures are formal, almost painterly (above: "Masupha, a Basuto chief", by Gribble, late 19th century), echoing Victorian portraiture—stiff, reserved, intense. Mofokeng has spent years piecing together the stories behind the subjects, and adds semi-explanatory text and unanswered questions: "What was the occasion?" "Are these images evidence of mental colonisation?"

The collection is a response to "The Bantu Tribes of South Africa" by Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin, an 11-volume photographic series and the second key work here. Produced in the 1920s, it takes a different tack, documenting a tribe and a way of life. These are frank, unrehearsed snapshots in which people wear fewer clothes and wider smiles, but beneath the glossy surface there is a deeper message. And that is just the appetiser. ~ OLIVIA WEINBERG

Santu Mofokeng and A.M. Duggan-Cronin Walther Collection, New York, Sept 13th to Nov 17th

EXHIBITIONS AT A GLANCE

Bronze (Royal Academy, London, Sept 15th to Dec 9th). A landmark show with 150 works spanning 5,000 years across all continents, from Ghiberti to Jasper Johns – many unseen in Britain before.

Picasso Black and White (Guggenheim, New York, Oct 5th to Jan 23rd). Another Picasso exhibition, another twist. He played with black and white as early as 1904 and never stopped. Here are 110 fiery paintings, sculptures and works on paper; some austere, most mesmerising.

Paul Gauguin: The Prints (Kunsthaus, Zurich, Sept 28th to Jan 30th). Gauguin is famous for his sunshiny paintings, full of Tahitian charm. Deeper, darker and more enigmatic, his prints and woodcuts uncover a whole new artist. 

India: Art Now (Arken Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, to Jan 13th). Over the past ten years, India has become an innovative hub of modern art. A new generation is making some noise: bright colours, big ideas. 

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years (Met, New York, Sept 18th to Dec 31st). Around 150 works: 25% Warhol, 75% wanna-be-Warhol. Was he the
most influential artist of the last 50 years? Yes, unfortunately.

Arte Povera. The Great Awakening (Kunstmuseum, Basel, to Feb 3rd). Arte Povera burst onto the Italian scene at the end of the 1960s: an odd movement, full of odd works made from odd materials (soil, glass, branches, wax), but meaningful.

Islamic Art Galleries (Louvre, Paris, opens Sept 22nd). The Louvre’s Islamic Art Collection is the largest in France and one of the most important in the world. Now it has a swanky new home. Imagine an enormous glass pavilion with a floating gold roof. If you go, don’t forget to look up.

Richard Hamilton: The Late Works (National Gallery, London, Oct 10th to Jan 13th). Hamilton was one of the founders of Pop Art. He was planning this show up to his death last year, so his distinctive touch should be stamped all over it. It includes his unfinished final work “Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu”. ~ OW

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