Events of the Social: Portraiture and Collective Agency
African Photography from The Walther Collection

Círculo de Bellas Artes/Salle Picasso, Calle de Alcalá, 42 28014, Madrid, Spain

6/2/2021 - 8/22/2021

GT 263 Tillim Guy Justino Ngene Laurino Bongue And Faucino Hando 2002

Conceptual Framework

In collaboration with PhotoEspaña, The Walther Collection presents at Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Events of the Social: Portraiture and Collective Agency. African Photography from The Walther Collection, curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose. The exhibition highlights the work of photographers and artists from the African continent and its diaspora who are agents of a postmodern paradigm shift in which biopolitical reflections, neo-colonial critiques, gender right advocations, ritual reactivations, multi-species theories, and the political call to action through the will of the collective, are just some of the apparent aspects of photography created in the recent decades. The artists represented are calling for the resignification of alterity; storytellers, and sometimes subjects, of countless poetics who question or produce collective imageries in which cultural identity is approached as a kind of tabula rasa, a starting point, without ignoring the violence of the process.

Black Photo Album three men
Santu Mofokeng, "The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890–1950," 1997
© Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg
Slide 39 and 40
Santu Mofokeng, The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890–1950, 1997

In The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890 – 1950, South African photographer Santu Mofokeng revisited old photographs from family albums and life histories, creating a new taxonomy to counter colonial classification of Black people as mere subjects of ethnographic study or natural history. These images offer the viewer a new focus of analysis, a reflection on how people choose to see themselves, portrayed in studios, cognizant – or hoping – that the objectivity of photography would offer them the power to reclaim their human condition. – Elvira Dyangani Ose

The exhibition takes as its starting point The Walther Collection’s 2010 inaugural show Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, curated by the late scholar and curator Okwui Enwezor, by contextualizing how redefining one’s own identity beyond the constructions created by colonization was, and remains, one of the key exercises characterizing Black and African subjecthood on its own terms. The story of this complex imaginary found in art and photography — and in their unique displays — is an exceptional platform for reappropriating not only that subjectivity, but also the gaze that marginalized it, placing the observer as fundamental in this exercise of redefinition. The exhibition examines over 10 years of collecting, curating, and exhibiting African Photography.

About the Exhibition

Events of the Social: Portraiture and Collective Agency is structured into five sections, focussing on different aspects of the exhibition’s main theme.

Reframing Subjecthood deals with individual and group portraiture, both in the studio and on the street, as a space of active searching for typologies and narrations in one’s immediate context. A seminal piece in Santu Mofokeng’s photographic work, The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890 – 1950 presents around thirty images of members of the working and bourgeois classes, constituting a unique archive of an urban, educated, Christian community which was facing its demise in the early 1950s, the time in which the South African government enforced the segregation of different racial groups. Mofokeng’s taxonomic gesture – contrary to the obsessive classification of Kimberley’s Bantu imagery, collected in Duggan Cronin’s work – redefines the notion of the Black subject.

Duggan Cronin Grid Events of the Social copy
Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin, The Bantu Tribes - The Nguni: Baca, Hlubi, Xesibe, 1928–54

Portraiture is the main instrument available to photographers like Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere to break down mythical preconceptions of everyday life and culture in cities across the African continent. If modern artists choose to redefine their own individual identity by exploring different forms of self-representation, then the postmodern paradigm offers photographers the possibility of escaping immediate environments in order to test their experiments of fabulation or protest through the possible scenarios of photography exhibitions. The presented works use alternative aesthetics, overcoming the automatization of canonical and pre-established concepts of beauty and femininity, as indicated in the works by Jodi Bieber and Zanele Muholi.

SK Walther Collection Seydou Keita Untitled Portraits 03
Seydou Keïta, "Untitled Portraits," 1949–60

It is in this external status which makes the Other’s gaze essential —that demands the context in which such gazes intersect. Herein lies the key, the raison d’être of photography as a social event, a dialogue, a generator of a collective agency. – Elvira Dyangani Ose

Amina Cachalia master
Sue Williamson, Amina Cachalia, from the series "A Few South Africans"
Miriam Makeba master
Sue Williamson, Miriam Makeba, from the series "A Few South Africans"
Helen Joseph master
Sue Williamson, Helen Joseph, from the series "A Few South Africans"

Body Politics depicts the body as a biopolitical battleground. The included photographers fight against social imperatives and specific sexual or gender orientations, conjuring expressions of economic, cultural and political disparities. They bear witness to the persistence of colonial compartmentalization and modern rhetoric perpetuating the dichotomy of ‘us and them’, while alluding to a possible reconfiguration of the politics of representation. The featured works frame the body as a repository of internal struggles, in some cases neo-colonial, where colonized bodies are directly replaced by those which are impoverished, imprisoned or simply marginalized— a shift that is evident in the work of artists like Yto Barrada, Mikhael Subotzky, and Guy Tillim. These attempts to reconstruct the discourse of cultural, geopolitical, and socioeconomic differences, and the experiments of re-inscribing the ‘history’ of certain groups or stories, generated not only a change in content, but also the transformation of a temporal framework of social representation.

YB 310 Barrada Yto Sleepers Fig 3 2006
Yto Barrada, Sleepers, Fig. 3, Tangier, 2006, from the series "Public Park"
YB 311 Barrada Yto Sleepers Fig 2 2006
Yto Barrada, Sleepers, Fig. 2, Tangier, 2006, from the series "Public Park"

Personal Narratives is dedicated to a phantasmagoria of images capable of recording every moment, offering the possibility of documenting the creators’ most intimate present. It encompasses works in which seriality has given way to poetry, enveloping visitors in intimate stories. In the work of Nontsikelelo Veleko, nostalgia radiates from the relaxed presence of the protagonists who, aware of their public presence and with a charismatic attitude, use fashion to establish new forms of self-representation. In the work Her-Story, Ke Lefa Laka (2012–2013), artist Lebohang Kganye uses multiple or double exposures to re-encounter her recently deceased mother in a gesture that suspends time as only photography can do. All of them give rise to a new typology that presents the sensibilities, vicissitudes, and aspirations of many young Africans.

Lebohang Mosaic 04
Lebohang Kganye, Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story, 2013

Land as Subject presents the technology of photography as an eminent part of the vocabulary from the colonial world. Works of authors like David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng illustrate the impact of ideologies and policies that prevailed during apartheid. For her series Diana Archive (2004), Jo Ractliffe uses a plastic lomographic camera to develop a body of work questioning the meaning of truth and the construction of South African history. The land is portrayed as a subject both intangible and physical, speaking, resisting, and containing the traces of experienced trauma, present in the works of Em’kal Eyongakpa, its ancestral spirit revealed via traditional ceremonies and rituals in those of Theo Eshetu.

Disillusionment and Empowerment reflects certain moments and key players in the history of the struggle for African independences by fictionalising them. For instance, African Spirits (2008) by Samuel Fosso highlights the role of both the most representative figures of pan-Africanism and the anonymous citizen — whom he impersonated in this series of self-portraits— while Zanele Muholi calls for a change in the parameters deciding who becomes a central part of history in their platform of visibility for LGBTQIA+ activists. The presented works showcase the radical revisions and restructuring of the individual or collective memory around the communal and the social. They represent the need to intervene and subvert the processes of history making, and the concern with what lasts and its temporality.

Za M 969 Walther Collection Zanele Muholi Facesand Phases 2007 cropped
Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases, 2007-2013

Events of the Social: Portraiture and Collective Agency brings together the collector Artur Walther’s attempt to trace the lines of this history through a project comprising not only a collection, but also a series of publications and an international exhibition program offering both neophytes and professionals the chance to examine structures of knowledge where photography is its primary epistemological source. It has been conceived over the past ten years through a dialogue with photographers, scholars, and international curators, stemming from Enwezor’s original conversation of how portraiture contextualizes taxonomy and theatricality as factors enabling social transition and subjectivity. And whilst the project is centered on imaginaries emerging from Africa, it signifies the Collection’s goal to display, discover, and study photography emerging from the continent and its diaspora as a space of global, human significance.

Artworks on display

    Artists on display

    About the Curator

    Elvira Dyangani Ose is a curator and writer based in Barcelona. In July 2021, she was appointed director of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), one of Spain’s most prestigious art institutions. Since 2018, Dyangani Ose has been the director and chief curator of The Showroom in London, focusing on site-specific exhibitions by emerging artists. Previously held positions include curator of international art at Tate Modern, London, curator of contemporary art at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), Sevilla, and senior curator at Creative Time, New York. She has also been the artistic director of Rencontres Picha – Lubumbashi Biennial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and curator of Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art.

    About PHotoESPAÑA

    PHotoESPAÑA is an annual international photography festival taking place in Madrid, Spain. Established in 1998, PHotoESPAÑA is now the largest photography festival in Spain and offers a point of reference for the world of photography and visual arts.


    Círculo de Bellas Artes/Salle Picasso, Calle de Alcalá, 42 28014, Madrid, Spain

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